SXSW Film Review – Surviving Cliffside
According to IMDb.com, Jon Matthews, the director of Surviving Cliffside (2013), has a unique story of his own. Growing up in West Virginia, Matthews initially studied law, and was practicing for nearly seven years. At the age of 31, he decided to change careers, enrolling in film school at NYU. Amongst his teachers were the likes of James Franco and Spike Lee. It would be Lee who would award Matthews a grant to fund his first feature length work. His subject is as personal as you can get: a documentary of his cousin (E.J. Huffman), his cousin’s girlfriend (Brandy Smith), and their children living in a trailer park neighborhood in Cliffside, West Virginia. These are the same places Matthews grew up in. By pointing the camera at his own family, Matthews is essentially revealing a part of himself as well.
This is a demographic that has received a skewed reputation in the media. People who live in trailer parks are sometimes played for comedic purposes or as some type of sideshow in movies and television. Characters like Honey Boo Boo don’t help the “redneck” stereotypes that are often labeled to them. Matthews attempts to subvert these notions, painting them with grief, frustration, and confusion, but also with a significant amount of hope. These people are well aware of their situation and reveal deep insights into who they are. Since Matthews is related to them, he has access in ways few other documentary filmmakers do, since the familiarity between him and the subject is already established.
I don’t think E.J. and Brandy would have opened up to anyone else as far as they do. They are candid in their thoughts, and show their faults without thinking twice as to how it could come off. Their trailer park is littered with guns and drugs, and we see children routinely playing in close proximity to both. Anxiety and stress are common. E.J. is an ex-gang member and drug addict. We learn that E.J. lost three friends within mere months of each other. When not with the family, E.J. is either doing drugs or trying to buy some. This puts a tremendous strain on Brandy and their kids, Makala and Josie. In one scene, low on cash but needing to provide for the family, E.J. decides to shoplift goods from a local Target.
One of the main story arcs involves their daughter Makala. Despite all the financial issues, E.J. and Brandy still manage to have Makala enter and compete in beauty pageants. Their main goal is to have her win the Little Miss West Virginia contest. To make matters more complicated, Makala is also in remission from leukemia. There are scenes where we see her dancing on stage in glittery outfits, but those are contrasted against scenes of her breathing through an inhaler, or going to the hospital due to the conditions of her health. The debate over girls competing in pageants is never delved upon here. In this context, Makala participating is meant as an anchor point to which the family comes together.
Aesthetically, Matthew’s film does not have the polish of other documentaries, but this can be attributed to budget constraints. However, there is a level of intimacy because of this. He knows what to shoot and what images to linger on. Unfortunately, he also narrates in a very flat tone, as a means to provide informational details, but that is only a minor setback. There are sequences where Matthews keeps his camera rolling when others would choose to cut away. During a scene where E.J. visits a friend, he advises Matthews to stand back as he notifies them that a documentary is being filmed. Where some would choose to leave this part out, Matthews decides to continue shooting to see what happens.
The image that remained with me the most has nothing to do with the family. While filming, Matthews comes across a man named Chad. Devastated by drug abuse, we find Chad shirtless and wandering the streets, shaking and tweaking his body uncontrollably. Matthews focuses in on him, sometimes intervening to ask if he needs help. We discover part of the reason Chad acts this way is to keep himself awake. The drugs he’s taken are so potent that if he were to fall asleep, he could slip into a coma. There’s a surrealistic nature in how this individual was captured, and in turn he plays as a bigger metaphor for this place and the many dangers that inhabit it.
Surviving Cliffside does not offer answers to the problems E.J. and Brandy face, but portrays a small piece of their life together, during this moment in time. Through all of their hardships, it’s clear the two are head over heels for each other and for their kids. Matthews does not act a step removed from the material, he obviously has an emotional attachment to it. At its best, this first time filmmaker depicted a world with real people trying to deal with real issues, who are often ignored by the rest of society.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director Jon Matthews from SXSW 2014.