Directed By: Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos.
The three teenage boys that the documentary Rich Hill follows for its entire runtime live in various states on extreme poverty in the title Missouri town. There are only about 1,400 people living in Rich Hill, Missouri – there is no main industry to speak of, and hasn`t been for several generations now, yet some people keep living there. Among them is Appachey, who is 13, has a violent temper and a kid who has already been prescribed several medications for his various disorders. He doesn’t do well in school, and show little interest in it. He likes to skateboard – or at least says he does. His father walked out on his family years ago, leaving Appachey and his siblings to be raised by their single mother – who swears constantly, smacks the kids around (nothing really approaching child abuse, but certainly not nice) in a house that looks disgusting. Harley is 15, and currently living with his grandmother. His mother is in jail for trying to kill his stepfather – apparently after he sexually abused Harley. Harley`s father is still in the picture – somewhere – but he doesn’t get along with him too well - he says he didn’t get along with the `woman he`s married to` so he gave Harley the “opportunity” to live with his grandmother. He too, has a hair trigger temper, is on medication, and will barely attend school – feigning illness every day to get out early. Both of them smoke constantly, in front of their guardians, who don`t seem to care. Their prospects seem limited at best. Then there`s Andrew – the smartest and most well-adjusted of the three. He goes school, plays football, and his parents are still together – although his mother is basically a heavily medicated shut-in – and his father “doesn’t like to work a steady job”- but have lots of plans to make money – although none of them really turn out well. They are on the movie constantly, because they cannot keep up with the rent. In one scene, the family shows how they get hot water when that has been turned off for none payment – boiling water on irons and in coffee pots.
This probably sounds depressing – and largely, it is. Yet co-directors Andrew Droz Palmero and Tracy Droz Tragos (first cousins) have made a surprisingly beautiful film – finding moments of visual poetry even in these three down trodden families, all living in the same town, although if they know each other, they never cross paths. Rich Hill is a social issue documentary to be sure – one that quietly comments on income inequality and poverty – but the film doesn’t beat you over the head with the message. The film simply shows these three young men and their lives, and allows the audience to draw their own communities. But the issue is there – in scenes like when Andrew`s father talks about how they could kept their old place if only they had $1,500, but who can make that kind of money – and then contrasting that with the annual pie auction, where someone (whose face we do not see) has no problem dropping $3,000 on a simple pie. Someone is making money – it just isn’t in these three families.
The film evokes an America out of a Norman Rockwell painting at times – at annual fairs, and football games – with American flags waving in the background. But the film paints these three families as ones for whom the American Dream really is just a dream. All three of these teenage boys are smart, resilient and want better lives for themselves. But will they ever achieve it? Coming from where they do, do they have a chance? To some, the poor just need to work harder to get ahead in their lives. Rich Hill beautifully shows the fallacy in that argument, and gets to know these three young men – and does in fact make you hope they can overcome their obstacles – their families, their town, and at times themselves – but doesn’t hold out much hope.
I know some have called Rich Hill `poverty porn`- or would have preferred a film that was bleaker looking than this film. But I think the style of Rich Hill is what makes it work so well. It is a beautiful film, and finds those moments of beauty right alongside their dire circumstances they live in. There has been a lot of romanticism about small town life in America – but as Rich Hill makes clear, there isn’t much romantic about living there anymore. This is a bleak film in mainly respects – but one that allows for at least a little light at the end of the tunnel. It`s one of the few documentaries that I would like to see a sequel to in a few years’ time. I have no idea where these people will end up – I hope it’s someplace good, but I’m not convinced it will be.