Life moves at half speed in Rich Hill, Missouri (pop. 1,396). People amble more than they walk, and drawl more than they talk. It’s the kind of place where 15 year-olds are self-sufficient adults and 30 year-olds look like 50 year-olds. There is no industry, and one in five families lives below the poverty line. Dilapidated houses and junk-strewn lots bring to mind an almost post-apocalyptic setting. Geographically and otherwise the town of Rich Hill isn’t far from the Ozarks setting of Winter’s Bone, and the documentary Rich Hill isn’t either, projecting a familiar image of poverty and hopelessness in America’s hinterland.
Directors: Tracy Droz Tragos, Andrew Droz Palermo
Producers: Tracy Droz Tragos, Andrew Droz Palermo
Cinematographer: Andrew Droz Palermo
Editor: Jim Hession
Music: Nathan Halpern
Premiere: January 19, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 1, 2014
US Distributor: Independent
“We’re not trash. We’re good people,” declares 14 year-old Andrew, one of Rich Hill’s three teen subjects. I admit I began to experience the same defense mechanism watching the film, co-produced and directed by Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos. Honored with a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, Rich Hill appeared to be the next Park City-fêted film about us poor souls eking out a living between the coasts, as also seen in Sundance awardees Jesus Camp, Ballast, Winter’s Bone, Frozen River, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Having lived on both coasts I know well the ignorance about Middle America, and I cringe at the stereotypically bleak depictions of life in the Heartland (although even we have nothing on Appalachia when it comes to distressed films).
But I viewed Rich Hill through a more forgiving lens when I learned Droz Tragos wasn’t an outsider sweeping in, but someone who has family ties to Rich Hill. She was a familiar face earnestly trying to understand why certain pockets of the community continue to struggle, and what that says about America in 2014. What it says isn’t flattering, and conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza may have done better to simply point audiences to Rich Hill than pay to see his recent America. But Rich Hill is not a political film, even though it offers plenty of fuel for a political debate. It’s not an agenda-pushing investigative documentary about a conspiracy, controversy, or scandal. And despite its title it’s also not really a film about a place, since we learn next to nothing about the actual town.
What Rich Hill is, then, is a beautiful portrait of the very ugly experience of growing up in an environment in which the American Dream is not only out of reach, but may not even be a familiar term. This is the reality of three lonely Rich Hill boys—Andrew, Appachey, and Harley—who are presumably unaware of each other’s existence (a sad irony considering the comfort it could offer). Every community has kids like this, who sit alone in the cafeteria, play alone on the playground, and generally exist alone in a school full of peers who cruelly avoid them. These are the kids who aren’t posting selfies on Instagram—they don’t have smartphones anyway, and may not even have hot water.
Andrew is the most hopeful of the three subjects, a handsome, strapping athlete who is comfortable in his own skin and exhibits impossible optimism. He’s quietly confident, a born leader, and an ardent believer. He describes praying often, for everything, and isn’t discouraged that “God has to be busy with everyone else”. Andrew is the only boy with both parents at home, though the fact that they’re physically present doesn’t mean they physically parent. His mother suffers from a malady that’s never explained but appears to be an addiction to prescription drugs. His aimless father croons in a Hank Williams tribute band and is unable to find steady work (one pie-in-the-sky idea is to find gold in Alaska, Australia, or England). Andrew loves his parents and younger sister, but his patience is tested by the constant moves his family makes in search of a job for his father. It’s no sure thing Andrew will remain motivated by pure ideals, but you have the sense he’s the kind of kid who could grow up to save the city.
Harley, 15, lives with his grandmother while his mother finishes a prison sentence for attempting to murder the abusive stepfather who raped Harley (and was never punished for it). Harley is awkwardly charming and constantly mugs for the camera, but sweet as he is when talking about how much he loves his mother, he also exhibits a much darker side. He talks freely about his anger issues and his obsession with weapons, hinting at a violent temper that could be unleashed if not for the relatively stable environment provided by his grandmother. Harley is teetering on the edge of dropping out of school, feigning shortness of breath in order to excuse himself from school early, every day. Arguing with the principal, he explains that in his world—and thus in Rich Hill—being with family is more important than getting an education. Tragically, you find yourself almost wondering if he’s right.
At 13 years old, Appachey is a chain-smoker with multiple diagnoses of developmental disorders. His single mother, Delana, loves him but is overwhelmed by the needs of him and his sisters: “I’ve never had any dreams or hopes. I just went straight from being in momma’s house to being a mother” (one of many moments in Rich Hill that calls Boyhood to mind). Appachey is desperate for attention from anybody willing to provide it, and like Harley he takes every opportunity to show off to the camera. He loves first-person shooter games and grows increasingly violent at school, where, although we don’t see it, he probably gets mercilessly teased. His fighting ultimately leads to a 45-day suspension and a trip to juvenile detention. Feeling guilty, but relieved that he’ll be in a structured environment, Delana sighs, “I love him with all of my heart. But I need a break.”
It isn’t ultimately clear whether Rich Hill represents the majority of experiences in Rich Hill (that many locals protested the film’s focus suggests it does not), but again, it’s not a documentary about a geographical location. It’s a heartbreaking observation of the lives of millions of Americans across the country—in the Heartland but also on the urban coasts—who struggle to realize their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The saddest part is they may not even be aware they have that right.
Rich Hill shows us the world through adolescent eyes, but there’s little that approaches a childlike innocence here. These three teens are wise beyond their years in the worst kind of way. They have virtually no positive role models in their lives, and in their bad moments they simply accept they are products of their environment. What they see around them is what they are going to be in the future. The film’s gloomy epilogue suggests that without some sort of intervention at a micro or macro scale, that’s exactly what is going to happen, and what is currently happening, around the country every day.