Director: Jon Matthews
MPAA Rating: NR
Film Pulse Score: 7/10
Many documentaries tackle the subject of poverty in rural America, but few have been told from an insider’s perspective. Director Jon Matthews grew up in the small West Virginia town that sets the stage for Surviving Cliffside and the subjects happen to be his cousin’s family. It’s a raw film that’s rough around the edges, but despite feeling so tragic there’s an underlying sense of hope.
What was once a summer camp, the small community of Cliffside is now overrun by joblessness, drug addiction, and gun violence. Director Jon Matthews’ cousin EJ, his fiancé, and their two children are doing the best they can to make it in a world that doesn’t give them many opportunities.
The film follows this family as they struggle to make ends meet after their social security benefits get cut due to their daughter’s leukemia going into remission. That daughter is also attempting to compete in the Little Miss West Virginia beauty pageant, which proves to be difficult given how much it costs to enter. As if things weren’t difficult enough, EJ forms a prescription drug addiction and his fiancé discovers she’s pregnant.
One of the most important aspects of this film is that it doesn’t show this community in an exploitive manner. Since the subjects are the director’s family, and this is the town he grew up in, it’s clear he wanted to show things in a matter of fact way, without poking fun. This can be a very difficult task, especially because he also didn’t want to sugar coat things. Matthews seems to walk this line successfully, by not making light of the situation, but not shying away from confronting it either.
Probably one of the saddest things about this film is that this is a story that is happening to many families across the country. It focuses on just one, but I would venture to guess many viewers know people in similar situations. It’s not presented in a preachy way though, there’s no underlying message saying the government failed them or they failed themselves. It’s just showing us what’s going on in this little town and we’re left to draw our own conclusions.
Since this is his first film, there are some slight issues here and there with how Surviving Cliffside is edited, however these little flaws give the film a more stylish look. Some transitions look a bit sloppy, and there’s and odd use of still frames from time to time, but I found these to be enduring rather than amateurish. As I’m always a sucker for opening titles, I particularly liked the ones featured in this film.
Surviving Cliffside is a no-frills portrait of the lower class that should be seen by everyone who complains about their Starbucks being too hot to drink or their Netflix not streaming in 1080p on their giant flat screens. It’s a film that can be sad, frustrating, and uplifting all at once and a great debut from Jon Matthews.
As an added note, this seems like the perfect film for Oscilloscope, so I hope you guys are looking at this one!