By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Rich Hill is a poor Missouri town about 75 minutes south of Kansas City, population 1,396 and dwindling. As shot by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (You’re Next), who also co-directed this intimate and unsettling documentary with his cousin Tracy Droz Tragos, the town looks almost as bleak as the post-apocalyptic Australian Outback of The Road Warrior or The Rover. “I never had any dreams or hopes,” admits the chain-smoking mother of one of the three troubled boys profiled here, and it’s one of the many unfortunate legacies that we see the parents of Rich Hill pass on to their offspring.
Palermo and Dragos follow three middle school-aged boys who are maturing into a world without prospects. Andrew is a sweet, hard-working boy who lives in squalor with his twin sister, and whose unwavering belief in his comatose parents is heartbreaking. Appachey is the seething and scowling 12 year-old son of an utterly overwhelmed single mother. Harley is an intensely damaged teenager whose mother is serving time for the attempted murder of the stepfather who raped him. “Things that happened to me, they still happen,” Harley says on Halloween night, feeling bolder than usual behind his Insane Clown Posse face paint.
At times, Rich Hill has the vibe of an Errol Morris-esque picaresque about small town oddballs, but there is also an ethnographical bleakness to this portrait of angry boys. There is such a deeply uncomfortable honesty from and unflinching access to the young subjects that, much like Grey Gardens, the project constantly (and thrillingly) threatens to cross over into rank exploitation. Certainly, the many cutaway shots to stacks of unwashed dishes and piles of dirty laundry were excessive, especially as I contemplated the sink full of dirty dishes in my own kitchen at that moment.
Still, the storytelling and character-building in Rich Hill are powerfully effective, and the images are as vibrantly cinematic as in any film I’ve seen this year. In a year when we probably won’t get a new Terence Malick movie, savor the gliding beauty of this film’s 4th of July sequence, as the camera gracefully tracks along with Andrew and his cartwheeling cousins while they shoot off bottle rockets. And yet despite its accomplished cinematography, the film never strives for mere pictorial beauty – the emotional core of this sequence is our relief that these jaded and rage-filled kids can still be amazed by something.
Without condescending to check off boxes on a political agenda, Rich Hill offers a troubling picture of the invisible children of American poverty. Andrew’s father is a nearly dead-eyed wanderer who moonlights as a Hank Williams, Sr. tribute artist, and whose grand scheme for pulling his family out of despondency is to become a gold prospector. As Palermo and Tragos guide us through the broken fences and empty lots of Rich Hill, we see that any sort of plan is a luxury, even one with no intention of following through, and with no chance of success.