July 26, 2014

'Rich Hill': Home Truths in America's Third World

"It's not a film that wraps everything up in a bow; it's not a safe movie. That scares people- some are terrifically afraid of it and think it's too dark. But some people appreciate the issues that it stirs up."

The film that co-director Tracy Droz Tragos is talking about is Rich Hill—currently winding down a golden festival run that opened with a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance—and the issues are endemic poverty and chronic social malfunction. Set in a forgotten, industry-less town in Missouri, Rich Hill follows three moneyless teenaged boys whose trajectories are adrift and unknown.




Our heroes, Andrew, Harley and Appachey, are well aware that they have been born into poverty; without the attention of Tragos and co-director/cousin Andrew Droz Palermo, they are nothing and nobody, to the rest of their country and the world. They all live in shocking squalor, dependent on food stamps, lacking hot water, in itinerant filth and without any sense of an embracing future that awaits them. Their acute knowledge of their disadvantage is as real as the sense that their future is predestined by their economic circumstance.

 Sparkly-eyed Andrew provides the dose of hope. To paraphrase another film about male adolescence, Fred Schepisi'sThe Devil's Playground, he has a smile that "will take him halfway around the world." He's a generous, loving boy whose religious commitment to optimism is both heartening and heartbreaking. By revealing all the boys' daily goings-about, Rich Hill shows— painfully, intimately—that poverty doesn't just mean hardship; it means a total lack of dignity, a sense that society has no place for its poor. It reminds us that there are sections of the United States that might as well be Third World, and are worse off than many middle-class suburbs in the Global South. 


Andrew, featured in Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo's Rich Hill

Beyond the question of mere economics, Tragos says she and Palermo realized that deeply rooted poverty creates crushing stigmas and social isolation. In a country with a massive underclass, it's still taboo to admit poverty to others. "It's a strange analogy," she says, "but at Alcoholics Anonymous, they say, ‘I'm an alcoholic,' and that's how they say, ‘I need help.' But one of the things that we discovered is that there's so much the stigma around needing help to get out of poverty, and there's the American myth of this rugged individual, and the idea that if you're poor, you deserve to be poor because you made bad choices.

"Often kids feel those myths and stigmas, too, towards themselves," Tragos continues. "But the kids who have been in this film are in a different place because of their participation. They think it's OK to ask for help; that doesn't make them a bad person, that doesn't make their family bad. They now have a sense of belonging. We talked a lot about wanting the film to celebrate some of the resources within the family that weren't to do with having money, but having love and moments of play and joy and connection."

"More than anything, what I took home from the experience of making the film is the importance of the love that's within the home—that's the most precious thing," Palermo maintains. "And not being afraid to share it or to verbalize it and to hug each other. Andrew's family in particular is so good about it and that's one of the reasons he's so optimistic. And it's something that's so different from my own upbringing; looking back, I see was yearning for it, even though I didn't realize it back then." He remains in touch with the kids. "I talked to Andrew in the last week or two. We talk girls and his love life. Andrew said he wants to stay away from girls, and I said, ‘Good luck with that.' He seemed to have a girlfriend every time we filmed him."

While it's easy to think that the most down-and-out juveniles lack full inner lives and ambitions, Rich Hill proves otherwise. One of the most stunning and warmly funny moments shows the very angry, very medicated and very dysfunctional Appachey looking down and mumbling that perhaps he'll go to China "and become an art teacher....just draw dragons all day." In this way, Rich Hill enables the dreams of the underclass. These young Americans have a certain open ability to speak their thoughts directly, and when the filmmakers aren't following the boys, they capture the mega-bleak township with an unspeakable beauty: pale dust illuminated through slanted window light, Harley's grandma framed through his blue-grey cigarette smoke, Andrew's 15-cent fireworks let loose at twilight-shot close and blurred at first, then wide and focused. In this way, it's closer to Justin Kurzel's 2011 crime-drama, Snowtown, which beautifully shows the ugliness of the Australian underclass' situation, than Richard Linklater's Boyhood, its more obvious cinematic sibling, which could very well have been called Parenthood.


Appachey, featured in Rich Hill 

Despite the grimness of Third World America, Rich Hill remains uncommonly gorgeous in its colors, compositions and photography, and therefore inspirited. "We saw evidence that there is so much love and resilience [in poor families]," says Palermo, who also shot the film. "We wanted to make the film feel that way, and make it as beautiful as we could to make it feel more hopeful and lovely. We could have certainly done the very gritty, high contrast look. But I grew up in Missouri. It's a beautiful place, and we wanted to treat the kids as heroes. In their interviews, the camera was always lower than them—I filmed them low and wide. I was determined to film them dignity." Beautifully yet sparingly shot and heartbreakingly honest, every frame and every shot of Rich Hill feels considered and rings true. In this way, Tragos and Palermo have created a documentary that feels like a narrative feature.

Rich Hill treats its subjects with the ultimate respect and consideration, and without the usual condescension of adulthood. We are reminded that the problems of children are as real as those of adults, and that although parents often feel like their lives are out of control, they have more control over their childrens' lives than they realize—their main power is to make their boys and girls feel safe and loved and needed. Rich Hill makes us want that for Harley and Appachey and Andrew, even as we fear the worst for them. In that way, it makes us want more from independent filmmaking. It reminds us what documentaries can do: be socially effective and artful.


Harley, featured in Rich Hill

"We haven't wrapped the film around a specific policy, but we care very deeply about the film's social impact," says Tragos. "People who see the film are moved to empathy. They have a desire to do something and change something. And what do they do about those feelings of empathy? We want to seize on the feeling that the audience has and direct it, while keeping it open-ended and making it lean into people's own communities. We also have very specific initiatives; we're working with the Department of Education, which is screening the film to policymakers and educators. We're really excited about that."

Rich Hill opens August 1 in New York City, August 8 in Missouri and August 15 in Los Angeles, through Opus Docs/The Orchard. The film also premieres August 5 on VOD.

Lauren Carroll Harris is a Sydney-based writer and the author of 'Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia's Film Distribution Problem' published through Currency House.