Rich Hill

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 15, 2014

Andrew Droz Palermo stars in 'Rich Hill'
Andrew Droz Palermo stars in 'Rich Hill'   (Source:Sundance Institute)

Teenagers smoking cigarettes, a chain-link fence used to line laundry, a lonely teenage boy sleeping on his "Playboy" branded comforter. These are the types of visual details fed to us throughout "Rich Hill," a documentary that seeks to provide a visual portrait of youth in the titular Missouri town.

The three boys detailed here (all white men, it's probably worth noting) struggle with poverty at home, attention spans at school, and violence in their hearts. Co-directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos search for some poetry in their sadly typical plight. They might even have found some.

What they create - when this film is at its best - is a tapestry of rural American life. The three characters are Andrew, whose father has moved his family more than a dozen times; Appachey, a chain-smoking young teenager with legal issues resulting from moments of violence; and Harley, an oft-abused social misfit with a mother in jail for a crime she didn't commit. In their stories the directors find incidents quite painful in their specificity: A boy deeply pained that no one at school remembers his birthday, or another trudging through ice water because he can't think of anything else to do during his days. The unblinking cinematography (there are a fair few long takes) and somber score (done by Nathan Halpern, it recalls the 'humming' sound popularized by Cliff Martinez), only accentuate the tragic tone.

Not a stretch goes by without a tragedy, in fact - it's as if Palermo and Tragos picking the moments and images that will pack the most punch, with no regard for the rhythm of actual day-to-day life. There isn't much of a narrative here, on that note. I called it a tapestry above, and that's all it is: Footage of misery and plight spliced together until it lasts for 90 minutes. It makes you think back to a great movie in a similar format, "Hoop Dreams," which followed a number of Chicago families for years. When you think back to "Dreams," you don't think about big revelations or to-the-camera testimonies - you think about scenes of the subject family hanging out and watching TV. The director of "Hoop Dreams" hung around his subjects long enough to get truly naturalistic footage. The directors of "Rich Hill" haven't accomplished the same. They've given us the headlines - the startling images, the bad habits, the moments that get us outraged - but they haven't given us a real story..

We can quibble (and people certainly will) about whether this is "poverty porn" or not. The issue is not of intentions, though, but of effect. This film is so drowning in its own seriousness - hobbled by melancholic, silent passages that look on local landmarks with disdain, begging us to feel disgusted about the conditions these people live in - that it never actually presents a lived-in portrait of what its subjects are actually like on a day-by-day basis. Here's a film about crass Americana that expects you to be so shocked by poverty that it doesn't bother doing anything other than reminding you that poor people do indeed exist. It's like the directing team set out to make a respectable version of "Gummo" - but respectability never improves anything.