Winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Rich Hill intimately chronicles the turbulent lives of three boys living in an impoverished Midwestern town and the fragile family bonds that sustain them.
Rich Hill is the kind of film almost destined to attract mixed reactions. There will be those who, like Sundance, find it a mesmerizing and remarkable achievement. Then, there will be those, like myself, who consider to accomplish nothing more than exploiting the very subjects whose lives it purports to chronicle.
On the heels of everything that has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri over this past couple weeks, it may or may not be the best time for a film about three boys, in this case young white boys, who live in Rich Hill, a former mining town and now one of those towns that it seems like is an off the highway forgotten town.
Andrew is a surprisingly optimistic 13-year-old boy who lives with his nearly bedridden mother, his unemployed father, and a twin sister. Andrew seems most like the kid you always hearing saying "I'm going to get out of this place," but in Andrew's case you believe his spirit may actually make that happen.
Harley, on the other hand, is an angry 15-year-old boy whose mother is imprisoned for reasons that aren't fully revealed until later in the film and whose story is arguably the film's most impactful and tragic. He's now acting out in such a way that you can't help but hope that someone manages to help him before it's too late but, then again, the kind of help he needs is hard to find in these small towns and when you don't really have any money to speak of.
Appachey is a 12-year-old who is getting help for a slew of learning disorders. He's been diagnosed and re-diagnosed and, at times, you can't help but think that maybe he's been over-diagnosed. He mostly floats around the town, fights with his mother, and dreams of one day teaching art in China because they'd just sit around drawing dragons.
Rich Hill certainly doesn't tackle the racial issues that have been so evident in Ferguson, but it does go toe-to-toe with the cycle of poverty and, in more of an observant way, it looks at how that cycle is playing out in the lives of these three young boys. The problem with Rich Hill is precisely what some people absolutely love about it - it doesn't sit around judging these lives, but instead it merely observes how these lives are lived out. There were times I found myself wondering about Richard Linklater's Boyhood and wondering how he'd have handled it had his young actor suddenly seen his life fall into a downward spiral.
If I had to name a film that Rich Hill truly reminded me of, it would likely be Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin, though that's as much because the two films both dwelled in that uncomfortable place where our children and youth are sometimes forced to live. The two stories are vastly different, but there are some core similarities and it's hard not to watch this film without wondering if we're not watching the boys of Mysterious Skin when they were younger.
While Mysterious Skin felt like it had a purpose and it had an important story to tell, far too often Rich Hill feels like we're playing cruel observers of someone else's suffering. It feels like co-directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos were aiming for an uncomfortable intimacy, but there are too many moments when it feels like they achieve that intimacy at the expense of the children in question. The camera is allowed to linger meditatively over the poverty and chaos of their lives, dirty and messy homes in which even the simplest of gestures, such as playing a video game, is treated with condescending reverence.
There will be those for whom Rich Hill will resonate because, quite honestly, there's no question that there are those who don't realize that poverty such as this still exists in this country (it does!). There will also be those who consider the film's meditative, observational approach to be refreshingly devoid of emotional manipulation.
So be it.
For me, I felt like a scene in the recent The Purge: Anarchy film where a group of well to do citizens was watching from a safe room as others who had paid for the privilege ended the lives of those weakest and most vulnerable among them. Andrew, Appachey, and Harley are, indeed, among our most vulnerable. They deserve more than simply a camera following them so we say to ourselves "how awful!" as we return to the comfort of our homes. They deserve answers. Rich Hill has none.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic