Rich Hill is a rich portrait of poverty stricken youth culture in rural America. Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos never ask you to pity their subjects rather they are more content on making you aware of their existence. With unfettered access they are able to craft a documentary full of intimate moments that showcase the power an environment can hold on a person, and how broken the American dream can become. There is this dichotomous streak that runs throughout where desire and reality are always at odds. One that serves as a reminder that desperation does not always diminish hope. Even if a person is eternally trapped in their situation there is a glimmer of faith that life will somehow turn out better.
Nothing better displays that than the town of Rich Hill, Missouri itself. Located about an hour drive from Kansas City this once thriving mountain town has fallen on hard times. After the mine closed the population dropped along with property values and job opportunities. Although a shell of its formal self, citizens still hold a sense of pride of where they came from. This is best displayed in their annual Fourth of July celebration where they have a record-setting pie auction. Pies are sold for thousands of dollars in order to raise money for the grand firework display.
Outside of that celebration is the harsh reality a lot of kids and families face. Here the focus is on three young boys who are attempting to navigate through the difficulty of life. Andrew is a thirteen year old living with his parents and twin sister. His mother is too ill to work and his father relies on odd jobs around the neighborhood to pay the bills. Due to the unreliable nature of his work the family lives like modern-day nomads constantly seeking a place to stay.
Of everyone involved Andrew appears to be the most hopeful. His optimistic outlook could largely be contributed to his rather loving family and strong faith. For him prayer is a way to a better life. Andrew’s story is indicative of the film as a whole. We see how their situation was not completely due to a series of misfortunate events. Andrew’s father freely admits he is unable to live in the normal confides of society. An everyday 9 to 5 job would not work for him, which leads him to chase crazy schemes to make ends meet. In some ways he takes pride in his playing with the system. A specific scene sees an inventive way to overcome a lack of running warm water. Using everything from a stove top to a clothing iron he finds a way to find a way around the problem.
Besides Andrew you also have Appachey at age twelve and Harley at age fifteen, who sadly have stories that are even more tragic than Andrew. Appachey’s father has long left their family leaving his mother alone to raise the children. With his mother incarnated Harley is left living with his grandmother. Upon hearing his mother is in jail it is difficult to not cast immediate judgment. Smartly that judgment is allowed to permeate, but as more about the situation is revealed we see that sometimes things are not as simple as they sound.
Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos do a superb job of slowly allowing us to become familiar with who these kids really are. It is easy to first notice the cigarette smoking, bad mouths, and abrasive attitudes of Appachey and Harley. What Palermo and Tragos capture is where some of that comes from. What happens when a kid is only yelled at and talked to. How easily things can go wrong when young kids are asked to make adult decisions, and how growing up too quickly can leave you so far behind.
I do wish we got to see how they all related outside of their family unit. We get s small glimpse with Harley on his sixteenth birthday. After the school day does not live up to his expectations we see him plead with the principal to go home sick for the day—something that has become an everyday occurrence. Seeing more situations like that would open up the scope of the film, and give a better sense of what Rich Hill is like as a whole.
One element that ties everything together is the picturesque cinematography. Rich Hill becomes this stunning depiction of new age Americana. When backed by Nathan Halpern’s gentle score it is like witnessing personification of the new American Dream. Aspects like this make Rich Hill such an inviting documentary. It shies away from politics, instead focusing its energy on authentic representation of its subjects. This choice leads to the creation of a moving peace that evokes a deeply emotional reaction. Clearly Rich Hill is a documentary that all should see no matter your social economic status.