Rich Hill (2014)

17 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Rich Hill,” a Sundance-Grand-Prize-winning documentary about three disadvantaged Missouri teenagers, is one of the finest films I’ve seen this year. It’s only midway through the year of 2014, as I recently saw this film at the Little Rock Film Festival, and so I expect some films will come along later to be even more impressive. But this film is simply the best I’ve seen so far this year; any film I see in the next couple weeks, or even in the next month, is going to be given the difficult task of topping this film. If it did, it’d be great, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon; I love this film that much.

I’ve seen films try and truly capture what it’s like to live in the South, especially for a kid. Some of them have been successful; others have proven embarrassing; but this one, being a documentary, shows the real deal in a hard but sensitive journey into the lives of three teenage boys who live in Rich Hill, Missouri.

Produced and directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, “Rich Hill” follows and observes its three subjects, Andrew, Harley, and Appachey, as they go about their daily lives. Sometimes the camera will be like a fly on the wall, showing events in a cinematic fashion, while other times the kids will have fun with the fact that they’re being documented for a film, and sometimes talk to the lens. But while they will make jokes to the camera at times, they will have the courage to express themselves with dark secrets from the past when they feel comfortable enough, so that you know how things have been for them in the past. And when the camera is simply observing, you see even more of what they go through.

Appachey is a portly, unpleasant 12-year-old who comes from a broken home, often acts out when he’s angry, and lives with his multiple siblings and widowed mother, who is tough, bright, and often irritated by her son’s behavior (though it is a relief to find later, in a touching moment where he awaits a juvenile court hearing, that she does love her son). It’s clear in scenes where he wanders off alone and does things like break puddle ice that this kid doesn’t care about much in this world—not school, not home, nothing. He likes to think he’s old enough to know what he wants to be like, as he smokes a cigarette and mouths off to people. But it’s apparent that he won’t live out his limited dreams, such as “moving to China” to be an art teacher and “get to draw dragons all day,” as he keeps getting into trouble.

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15-year-old Harley is the most disturbing and yet the most interesting of the three subjects. He hasn’t had a normal childhood and won’t get a chance at one before adulthood, but he has a good sense of humor and is good-natured, though he is doing poorly in school. He lives with his grandmother after his mother has been incarcerated for attempting to kill his stepfather. Later, we discover what drove that to happen and worst of all, why the mother is imprisoned and the stepfather is not. Harley talks to his mother on the phone once a week and they still remind each other they love and think about each other.

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14-year-old Andrew is more optimistic and one to adapt to his surroundings. He has two things to remember in life—one is, “We’re not trash; we’re good people”; the other is, “God is busy with everyone else” while he believes that God’s plan for his family will come into motion eventually. He and his family move around a lot because his handyman father, who is also a Hank Williams Sr. tribute artist, can’t keep a steady job and often keeps the family in a state of isolation. Andrew knows more about how it all works, as he has grown quickly into manhood, while he also wants to continue to be his mother’s baby boy. Even when it seems he might be a little ticked as the family moves from house to house, he still keeps an optimistic point of view because he still relies on his Christian faith.

These are real teenagers with real problems. It’s how they deal with it that speaks volumes about what the future can hold in store for them, whether they like it or not. In that sense, especially in the case of Appachey, it’s kind of sad and tragic that after he’ll have spent some time in juvenile hall, he may still resort to what brought him there in the first place. We might be catching glimpses of these three kids before they become the violent, addicted Southerners that small Southern towns are often typecast by. And it’s all real; it’s all being documented. That’s why I hope that they choose the right paths in life down the road—I hope Andrew still keeps the faith; I hope Harley can be reunited with his mother; I hope Appachey is reformed. Do you know what I would like? I would like a sequel to this documentary, some time later (like Michael Apted’s “7-Up” series) so we can see how these kids turn out.

Even if you don’t live in the South, you can notice some familiarities from when you were that age—struggling with class grades, making friends, thinking about the future, and so on. What makes them different from most teenagers is their lifestyles. Sometimes, Harley’s grandmother can’t afford energy drinks and can’t always rely on food stamps. Andrew’s family doesn’t have gas for heating water, let alone a good home. Appachey’s home is too crowded, too messy, and too unstable. They’re all used to it by now and they just learn to survive whatever comes.

Sometimes there is room for fun, such as when Harley and his friends go out for Halloween and one beautifully-photographed sequence in which Andrew and his family and friends shoot off fireworks and light sparklers on the 4th of July. And sometimes there is possibility that the American Dream is hidden within this realm of shakiness. That makes the whole film melancholy and yet somewhat hopeful at the same time.

And I like that the film’s producers/directors chose their three subjects carefully by choosing a nice kid, a not-so-nice kid, and another kid in between the other two. And neither of these kids are portrayed as bad kids, like Andrew says in the beginning (“We’re not trash; we’re good people”); they just have their misfortunes and bad moments. The documentary does a great job at presenting these kids in a rural setting.

I’ve seen films that try to feature real life in the South, but “Rich Hill” is as real as it gets. You don’t find scenes quite like the ones in this film in other films. It’s authentic, it’s crafty, it’s riveting, it has characters as compelling as any fictional movie character, and it’s one of the best films of the year. I can’t recommend “Rich Hill” enough.

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