Rich Hill (2014 True/False review)

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<i>Rich Hill</i> (2014 True/False review)

In our (hopefully) enlightened age, we’ve come to recognize that no group of individuals should be scorned simply because “they” are different than “us”: not minorities, not homosexuals, not foreigners, not anyone. But this path to a more inclusive worldview hasn’t made room for everyone, yet. Look around pop culture, especially reality television, and you’ll see that there’s still plenty of derision aimed at those who would be described roughly as “poor white trash.” Whether it’s Hoarders or Cops, or even well-regarded indie films like Winter’s Bone, you’ll notice a dark view of those living in America’s supposed flyover country, far from the nation’s cultural hotbeds. It’s often portrayed as a land inhabited by hicks and hillbillies, rednecks and losers. Other minority groups have enough political capital to fight back against negative media representations: Who will champion the cause of the white underclass?

Cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo grew up in Missouri near the economically depressed town of Rich Hill, which has about 1,300 residents. Their documentary focuses on three young people in Rich Hill, but more broadly Rich Hill is a portrait of poverty and diminished dreams in America’s heartland. Tragos and Palermo force us to see these residents in their unvarnished surroundings, but rather than mocking or patronizingly ennobling them, Rich Hill simply asks viewers to question our prejudices. It’s a modest ambition rendered with great feeling.

The winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Rich Hill introduces us to Andrew (14), Harley (15) and Appachey (13). All three live in difficult situations, but that doesn’t mean they face the same obstacles or respond to them in the same way. Andrew is a relatively well-adjusted guy despite his father’s inability to hold down a job, while Harley struggles to contain his violent impulses since his mother went to prison a year earlier. As for Appachey, he’s one of several siblings watched over by an apathetic young mother, his interest in art and skateboarding perhaps not enough to overcome his messy home life. (And I mean “messy” literally: Their house is littered with clothes, trash and detritus, so much so that it’s hard to see the floor in some rooms.)

Not unlike Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s remarkable 2012 documentary Only the Young, which observed the lives of three Southern California teens, Rich Hill seeks to capture the essence of adolescent life, eschewing familiar teen types that we get through movies and television. There’s a refreshing awkwardness and unguarded honesty to Tragos and Palermo’s subjects, and the film doesn’t worry about pushing a particular narrative or agenda.

But with that said, Rich Hill does grapple with these kids’ reality, which is mostly shaped by their environment and their families. And we see a lot of signs that point to Andrew, Harley and Appachey having hard lives ahead. Poverty is rampant, and a dearth of worthwhile role models is worrisome. Plus, as we’ll learn, there are dark secrets that at least one of the kids is harboring, which explain some of the bad behavior. Granted, these factors are not specific to the lower-class whites of Rich Hill—minority groups of all ethnicities struggle with the same problems—but I’d argue that we tend to be less sympathetic when it comes to whites. Rather than weighing the effect of those external factors, we tend to dismiss impoverished white families—especially in the middle of the country—as just being “slobs” or “stupid hicks.”

And that’s what makes Rich Hill remarkable in a casual way: The people we see onscreen are, in fact, not that far removed from the trailer-trash clichés. Some of them do live in squalor. They don’t speak with much sophistication and don’t sport trendy clothes or hairstyles. Some have a fascination with guns and knives. Obesity is everywhere. In a sense, Rich Hill is the liberal’s nightmare vision of backwoods, red-state America. (One especially pointed moment comes when Harley goes out for Halloween dressed as a Juggalo, the name given to obsessive fans of the ultra-uncool group, Insane Clown Posse.)

But the filmmakers’ sympathetic, patient approach opens the door to a more nuanced perspective on these Midwestern lives. All three kids are bright and compelling, and Rich Hill marvels at the fact that Andrew seems so poised despite the fact that his family is constantly moving around, while Harley and Appachey appear to be floundering permanently. Rich Hill shows how poverty and lack of education can become an endless cycle, limiting people’s options and filling them with a sense of hopelessness. Without discounting the individual’s need for self-reliance, the filmmakers do illustrate all the ways in which reduced opportunities choke away potential. (At one point, Harley wants to buy something that’s a dollar—he just needs to find a quarter somewhere, which is easier said than done.)

Tragos and Palermo can oversell the romantic grandeur of their story: One wishes they had resisted the urge to go for a Days of Heaven-like sweep to their crowd scenes. And the attempts to make Rich Hill a synonym for America as a whole are too grandiose for a documentary that works best through its small-scale compassion. But there’s a nice touch near the end that suggests that Tragos and Palermo, who both spent time in Rich Hill as youngsters, understand that their subjects don’t need their pity. Despite the filmmakers’ concern for these teens, they recognize that no documentary is going to change the economic realities of a depressed town like Rich Hill. So much about life comes down to being born in the right set of circumstances: Rich Hill asks us to ponder what it’s like for those who, through no fault of their own, were dealt a bad hand.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

Directors: Tracy Droz Tragos, Andrew Droz Palermo
Release Date: Screened at the 2014 True/False Film Festival