Sundance 2014 Review: RICH HILL Is A Striking Look At Poverty In America

Sean Smithson, Contributor
When writing/directing team Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos focus their lens on three kids growing up in the ramshackle Missouri town of Rich Hill, it's not a pretty picture that is captured. Once a thriving mining village, now a veritable ghost town, with a staggeringly low population of barely over thirteen-hundred, Rich Hill is a graveyard of "Little Pink Houses" occupied by citizens slowly being choked to financial death by the noose of a stagnant job market. This begs the question, what future do the youth in such a place have? The documentary Rich Hill looks to answer this question.

The film does this by following three kids:

Andrew - The "good son" of the doc, Andrew is incredibly devoted to his family, doting on his sister and his ailing mother, and displaying an unflagging belief in his father, a grandiose dreamer who moonlights as a Hank Williams Sr. tribute singer. Andrew likes to work out, dreams of being a football player, and immediately becomes the overall voice of the film, when at its beginning he declares "We aren't trash. We're good people." 

Harley - A teenage given to outbursts of anger, which we eventually learn stem from a violent experience in his past. Harley lives with his grandmother, while his mother, who he remains close to, serves out a prison term. When all is revealed, we begin to get a deeper sense of what being impoverished is like, and what it means in the way of fair treatment in the US judicial system.

Appachey - In his way, seemingly the most troubled kid of the three. With a dictionary's worth of three-letter afflictions, a penchant for extreme depression, and a smoking habit that would kill Joe Camel, this 6th grader has a lot to overcome. Again, to the credit of the filmmakers, the layers of Appachey and his issues are revealed and it becomes much easier to understand that this is a kid's behaviors are indeed a sincere plea for some kind of help and structure. What finally puts a smile on this kids face may surprise you.

As we follow Andrew, and witness his family's habit of incessantly moving from one place to the next, we slowly see him struggling with the act of pulling away to hopefully pursue a more stable life. At one point, his father decides they are going to go prospect for gold or silver for their livelihood. In another scene, he can't figure out how to procure a tire iron to change a flat. Andrew's mother's ailment seems to wane when they first move to a new area, pointing to a high likeliness that she suffers from something psychosomatic rather than physical. Yet Andrew remains understanding, loving, and displays a wisdom about the situation the adults around him don't seem to possess. We really want bigger things for this kid.

Insight into the volatile Harley becomes much more clear when we see the everyday kid side of him as his grandmother preps him and his friends for Halloween, painting on their custom Insane Clown Posse faces for them, and sending them off into the neighborhood to go trick or treating. Again, as Harley and his mother's story is revealed, his actions become completely understandable. He's actually a very strong kid at the end of the day.

The extreme Appachey becomes more violent at school, lashing out and acting increasingly erratic as well as detached. When the camera follows Appachey on a lazy day, he winds up at one of his favorite spots, an underpass with an icy, stagnant pond. His entertainment is to throw dirt clods and rocks into it to try and break the frozen water into slush and to sit up under the concrete pass and chain smoke. Finally pushing the system to its limits, Appachey eventually finds himself in danger of being sent to a correctional facility to finish out 6th grade.

Rich Hill is good at getting into the skin of its subjects and creating a relatively three-dimensional portrayal of what it's like to be poor (I know firsthand, being raised by a poverty level single mother myself, and facing a lot of the same problems as the kids in this film when I was a youth). It remains, thankfully, as unsentimental as a doc about a bunch of impoverished and troubled kids can be. At the same time, I am still a bit on the fence about revealing the lives of children so unflinchingly. It would be easy for the wrong viewing audience to take Rich Hill as little more than a Honey Boo-Boo-esque nightmare. Hopefully Rich Hill spurs more people to understanding, and ultimately helping, rather than providing a weepy look at the less fortunate, to be gawked at by a 12 dollar latte crowd.

The cinematography of Andrew Droz Palermo is incredibly poetic at times, letting us know that America is indeed a beautiful place with epic picturesque landscapes as well as meticulously intimate portraits. Juxtapose this style with a cinema verite approach on his subjects, and it creates a duality in the reality of the film too. He shows the "better life" and the "beauty" against the struggle and dreariness of Rich Hill's everyday surroundings. Sometimes a 4th of July sparkler held against a painted sky in the warm dusk of summer is exactly what a "better life" is. Then again, sometimes waking up on a Saturday morning to a house full of garbage and a screaming frustrated mother angered by lack of money and opportunity is the reality. The poor learn to live moment by moment, because the future is intangible. 

The editing of Jim Hession is solid, deftly transitioning between the visually stunning quiet moments and the simple style of the interview segments. Nathan Halpern's score is a nice final touch, evoking the emotions and turmoil of the kids Rich Hill focuses on, without  becoming over-sentimental and overtly melancholy.

Ultimately, Rich Hill captures three kids with varying degrees of tumult in their lives who have yet to completely succumb to that futile thinking. Hopefully they never do, and pray tell, climb out of the hole that Rich Hill seems to be.
 
Personally, I'd be very interested in a follow up film in a few years to see where these lads have gone with their lives. All three of them exhibit a strength and power of will that is profound. Here's hoping they all have an opportunity to channel it.

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