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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: Rich Hill

Go to school.  Get good grades.  Get a scholarship.  Go to college.  Get an internship.  Turn it into a job.  Wake up early. Exercise. Go to work.  Nine hours, but you stay a little later to get some extra work done, really stand out at your next review.  It doesn't matter where you begin: In America, anyone can better their situation.  It's our national dream, that with integrity and hard work, things will be better for our children than they were for us.  It's baked into the mythology of the nation.

But for a huge segment of the American population, that's all it is: Mythology.  Rich Hill, the new documentary from Tracey Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, tracks a more common reality.  Rich Hill is a city of fewer than 1,400 people, a small rural area filled with closed shops that has few opportunities to escape its pull for any significant length of time.  Tragos and Palermo, cousins and co-directors, have strong family ties to the area, which may help explain how they got their subjects - three adolescent boys living in poverty and their families - to be so candid, and almost certainly explains the extraordinary level of empathy they have for their subjects.  The film may document extreme poverty, but the film is warm and large-hearted, far from the poverty porn you might expect.

Palermo doubled as the film's cinematographer, and he does some spectacular digital work here.  His shots manage to capture evocative images of small town Americana, the type of things that wouldn't feel out of place in a political ad.  Fireworks, parades, and apple pies, flags waving and kids playing in the fields.  It could be any town in the nation.  But keep that camera rolling, and you'll see those dilapidated houses, half-collapsed but still inhabited.  With the film's complete lack of narration, Palermo's images become even more vital, a striking contrast between the country we want to be and the one we actually are.

This is not enormously new territory, in many respects.  Barbara Kopple's iconic documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. similarly followed the plight of the small-town poor and their struggles to capture the lifestyle they felt they deserved.  And Debra Granik's twisty crime drama Winter's Bone even takes place in the same area of the country, and displays the family-first, don't-trust-the-government Americana dynamic well.  Fans of either work would do well to check out Rich Hill, a more intimate character study that lacks the hook - or the focus - of either of those films, but maintains much of their raw power.

And Rich Hill is powerful, make no mistake.  In particular, 15 year-old Harley, whose story is revealed in bits and pieces as he gets more comfortable, had me shedding a few tears.  Harley's story initially seems simple: A troubled boy fit to bouts of extreme, irrational anger and an unfortunate love of carrying around knives, he lives with his grandmother after his mother is sent to prison.  But nothing is simple, and as the film slowly chips away at Harley's past, we find a deeply wounded boy whose anger (and mistrust of the system) is well-earned, and whose goofy sense of humor is a welcome surprise.

But all three boys have their charms.  Andrew, 14, is an optimistic child. The most well-off of the three to outward appearances, he never lets his circumstances get him down, and he so clearly loves his family, warts and all, that he's impossible to dislike.  In fiction, Andrew would be okay: He has faith, family, and a strong work ethic.  It's not enough, though, as he's saddled by an irresponsible dreamer of a father and a mother whose medication leaves her housebound and dejected.

Appachey, 13 years old and already comfortably hunched over with a smoke and an angry glare, comes from a hard home.  He lives in relative squalor with a mother who can't control him and doesn't show much interest in trying anymore, and a sprawling family too big for their small home.  Appachey has a number of mental health issues, none of which his mother is willing to make him medicate, and his quick temper often lands him in trouble.  But he's also startlingly introspective, a thoughtful kid who wishes for more, even as he knows he probably won't ever find it.  

But even the film's ostensible villains are given moments to sit back and just be human.  Appachey's mother is hard, but she's also someone who has been dealing with an impossible situation since she was too young to really know how.  Harley's mother is in jail, but it's hard not to understand her motives.  Andrew's father wastes money they don't have and forces them to move constantly to avoid bills, but he also clearly adores his son and offers him sound advice.  

Because ultimately, the thesis of Rich Hill is that these are all people.  Good people and bad people, smart people and dumb people, people from stable homes and people who just can't hold everything together anymore, the only thing that links them is that things aren't going to get better any time soon.  When you're bathing in water heated up using an iron and a coffee pot because you had to let the gas bill lapse to keep paying for electricity, going to college seems roughly as feasible as going to Hogwarts.  Life isn't impossible.  Happiness isn't impossible.  Even upward mobility isn't impossible. But when it comes to the American poor, the odds are never in their favor.

Whatever its flaws, Rich Hill is a powerful piece of anti-political humanism.  Because, ultimately, I defy you not to feel, strongly and undeniably, for these kids.  As Richard Linklater did recently in Boyhood, Palermo and Tragos trade focus for intimacy, and while some viewers may find the resulting small-scale vignettes a bit scattered, a bit incomplete, to me it was necessary to capture the rhythms of small town life, the language of adolescence, the lives of these boys.  The meandering pace may not make for a terribly stirring social advocacy doc, but it makes for a helluva time capsule about coming of age down and out in 21st century America.

Grade: A-

For our Atlanta readers, Rich Hill will be coming to the Landmark's Midtown Art Cinema on August 22nd.  It is also currently available to rent streaming on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and more.

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