“God has to be busy with everyone else” intones a young man near the end of the plainly poetic and visually sumptuous documentary Rich Hill. It’s heartbreaking and hopeful, like much of the film itself, and implies a faith that things can improve and a knowledge that it hasn’t yet happened for him. This is a small story writ large that once again plumbs the depths of Middle America to show a side of the country that is real and vital and sad and unseen.
Blockbuster filmmaking, while not inherently bad and certainly worthy of producing great entertainment, has in recent years becoming increasingly safe and sanitized – relying mostly on sequels, remakes, comic book adaptations, or some combination of the three. That strategy allows movies to connect with a four-quadrant audience and increase overseas revenue, a segment which has increasingly driven the worldwide box office. Good or bad, that’s the nature of the business. Unfortunately a lot of smaller stories remain untold, which is where independent, foreign and documentary films can swoop in to fill the void.
Rich Hill, both the movie and its subjects, is a prime example of smaller stories that threaten to fall through the cracks but are compelling and nuanced enough to stand as worthy drama. The documentary takes place in the titular town in Missouri, a dirt-hewn Steinbeckian place with a population of 1,393 that’s been left behind by industry and fallen into deep poverty. Eschewing exposition-heavy talking heads, the film instead chooses to film its subjects as they go about their lives, choosing to show rather than tell in much the same way a narrative film would. There’s even hints of Terrence Malick-like pastoral scenes of beauty and obliqueness that are rare in documentaries.
At the centre of Rich Hill are the stories of three different teenage boys who all share a history of struggle and heartache, and are looking to move past the difficult first act of their lives. There’s perpetual optimist Andrew, an athletic and outgoing 14-year-old who’s switched towns and houses so much that it’d be comical if it weren’t so sad. 15-year-old Insane Clown Posse fan Harley lives with his grandma following his mother’s imprisonment for attempted murder – the first hint of many at a disturbing past. While 13-year-old whirling dervish Appachey rounds out the film’s main subjects, and he alternately charms and frustrates with love of skateboarding and his continual outbursts that stretch his overburdened mother to her breaking point.
Filmmakers Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos take a patient approach that allows these boy’s stories to play out at a languid pace. Like the best documentarians, they are skilled at withholding key pieces of information that are teased out over time, drawing in viewers by weaving the tales of these kids and their hard knock lives in tough circumstances.
For instance, it slowly becomes clear that Andrew’s family moves so often because they can’t support themselves despite his father’s self-professed strong work ethic. There’s a shot when Andrew is dropped off by a friend and his father half-assedly tries to fix his car that encapsulates their relationship well. Appachey’s constant anger and violent outbursts lead him towards a path that is no less sad by being completely inevitable. And Harley, the wounded heart and soul of the film, has perhaps the most harrowing and horrifying back story imaginable.That he’s able to find fleeting joy in something as simple as window shopping for knives or trick-or-treating is a small miracle unto itself.
There are no easy answers for why these people have been left behind by society’s supposed forward progress, but the film provides an abundance of context that allows for a mostly unbiased and judgement-free view that avoids blatant commentary and remains mostly distant. The directors were granted incredible access and at times it seems like the camera lingers too long on unkempt houses or grimy spaces (like a non-fiction Gummo), but Rich Hill narrowly avoids being exploitative and instead invites empathy.
There’s a wonderful moment at the end when Harley playfully jokes with the camera operator while waiting for his morning bus that reminds you that despite all this kid has gone through he’s still resilient and jovial and optimistic. It’s genuine and unguarded (like much of the film itself) and serves as a nice coda to this alternately deeply sad and surprisingly hopeful movie. It’s a call for connection in an increasingly segmented world.
Rich Hill (2014)
Directors: Andrew Droz Palermo & Tracy Droz Tragos
Runtime: 91 minutes