‘Rich Hill’ is a Powerful Metaphor for the State of the American Dream

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There is no such thing as the typical American small town. The imagined close-knit community of financially secure farmers and tradespeople, united by patriotism and God, has begun to fade from the national imagination. In its place are real towns like Rich Hill, Missouri, where institutions like the Fourth of July parade and the public school system march on, but 19% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Filmmakers Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos are first cousins with roots in that town, which sits about an hour and a half south of Kansas City. They teamed up to make Rich Hill, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The subject isn’t the community as a whole, however, but the lives of three teenage boys living on Rich Hill’s social and economic fringe.

First is Andrew, an aspiring athlete who lives with his parents and sister. His father drifts from profession to profession, including stints as a Hank Williams Jr. impersonator. The family moves around a lot, mostly within Missouri. Andrew is a quietly optimistic kid, perhaps hardened by his parents’ choices and bolstered by his faith. The second boy is Appachey, living with his mother and sisters in Rich Hill. Their house is a loud, hectic and often belligerent place. Appachey’s ADHD and bipolar disorder only add to his frustrations. The last one is Harley, the oldest of the three. He has lived with his grandmother since his mother was convicted of the attempted murder of his abusive step-father. He’s funny, has a growing interest in weaponry and struggles with truancy and anger management.

The most immediate aspect of Palermo and Tragos’s filmmaking is their palpable empathy. They are committed to showing the dignity of their subjects without idealizing their disadvantages or exploiting them. The chaos and occasional violence in Appachey’s home can be jarring, but it is also a space that contains a great deal of love and tenderness. All three mothers are given the opportunity to speak for themselves, and all three of them show a surprising and heartbreaking self-awareness. Palermo and Tragos show that parenting, and more broadly the creation of family, is something much more ad hoc than the endless advice books and sociological studies on the matter. In Rich Hill it can be a collaboration, between adults who may have become parents too early and children who have already seen too much of life.

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That last revelation becomes an interesting aesthetic idea as well. Palermo and Tragos are preoccupied with questions of childhood, what it looks like and when it ends. Andrew’s physical form is caught somewhere in the middle, his childlike face perched atop the awkward musculature of an aspiring high school football player. Appachey relays his troubles to the camera while gripping a cigarette, expertly mimicking the mannerisms of a much older chain smoker. Harley might be the most determined of the three to appear mature, and so his endeavors to control his own anger can turn his body into a battlefield of impulse. The images in Rich Hill are often full of this interior conflict, expertly assembled to emphasize the prosaic and nuanced reality of America’s rural problems rather than the often poetically reductive idealization of poverty.

There is a lot in this movie, and much of it arises quite obliquely and artfully. The crisis of the American school system and our excessive use of the criminal justice system to manage it, the impact of the recession, the problems of healthcare and prescription drug addiction and many more “issues” emerge. There are plenty of documentaries about these topics, many of which reach to find the humanity in their subjects beyond the journalistic facts. Rich Hill goes the opposite direction. In a certain light, the personalities and struggles of these three individual kids take on great metaphorical import, as if the film were a grand novel about the contemporary American condition.

Andrew’s strong Christian faith and his determination to dream, both in spite and because of the dreams of his father, is a powerful symbol. Appachey’s relationship with his mother and their conflict over his medication is evocative well beyond the borders of Missouri. Harley’s anger and his attraction to knives and guns might offer some troubling images, but they are more quintessentially American than we might like to think. Palermo and Tragos tell the immediate truth of their subjects while simultaneously projecting themes and ideas that speak to a much broader audience. That balance is the core of nonfiction art.

This review was originally published during the True/False Film Festival on March 7, 2014.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.