In looking at two of the lauded Sundance 2014 documentaries, “The Overnighters” (a Special Jury prize winner; read our review) and “Rich Hill” (which won the Grand Jury Prize), a common theme makes itself apparent, with these two films running parallel to each other in their milieus, but in very different ways. The particular concern is a wrenching, deeply intimate look at a specific kind of American masculinity—a masculinity that is very much in a state of instability. While “The Overnighters” takes up the grown men of the unstable Midwestern lower-middle class seeking riches in the North Dakota oil fields, “Rich Hill” focuses its lens on the boys and young men who might grow up into these oilmen. A finely observed and mesmerizing portrait of three teenage boys in Rich Hill, Missouri, the film (directed and produced by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo) is a tough but tender journey into their lives, and a sort of state of the union address of Middle America in the twenty-teens.
“Rich Hill” takes a largely observational, Direct Cinema-inspired of approach to documentary form, akin to the technique of the Maysles Brothers, simply following our three protagonists, Andrew, Appachey, and Harley throughout their daily lives. However, the boys directly address the camera, treating the lens as as friend, partner in crime, and confidant, allowing a truly unvarnished look into their realities, dark secrets and all. This breaking of the fourth wall allows for a deeper authenticity onscreen and serves the film well. These three come from similar impoverished backgrounds, and are dealing with many of the same problems that trouble most teenage boys: school, parents, struggling to assert an individual identity.
Of the three, Andrew seems the the most equipped and adept to better his circumstances, bound and determined to get a steady job and settle down once he’s old enough, a far cry from the nomadic lifestyle that his unemployed handyman/Hank Williams Sr. tribute artist father has saddled the family with. But Andrew is only a slip of a boy at first, embodying that fleeting liminal moment between boyhood and manhood, wanting to remain his mother’s baby but also feeling the need to take a stronger leadership role in this rudderless family as they drift from town to town, ramshackle house to ramshackle cousin’s house, all in search of “work,” which never seems to materialize. Andrew is quite bright and sensitive, but his parents don’t seem quite all there, and frankly appear to come from another era, not quite caught up with the realities of today.
Appachey, with the cherubic pudge of a young boy, carries himself with the dejected stature of a world-weary man, dragging on a cigarette with the weight of the universe on his shoulders. Though he’s diagnosed with a long list of mental and developmental problems, in his quiet moments with the camera crew, he’s quite self-aware and introspective. He doesn’t seem like a bad kid, just a confused and lost one. His mother, a widow, is a tough and smart woman, saddled with a hard life, having been married with kids at just a few years older than Appachey. Their relationship is difficult and tense in many ways, but clearly loving and tender too. She has to make a lot of difficult decisions about him, but the film sensitively balances their struggles with their good moments too. It’s neither one thing nor the other, and “Rich Hill,” while trafficking in some seriously dejecting issues, takes extreme care to show the happy moments, the moments of beauty, love, joy, and togetherness that coexist along with all of the problems.
Harley’s story is possibly the hardest of all. With his mother in prison for a reason that is not revealed until deep into the film, he has bounced from his dad’s house to his grandma’s. Harley puts on a tough exterior, smoking cigs, listening to rap, painting his face Juggalo-style for Halloween, but he’s still a sweet and funny mama’s boy (yes, he takes that Juggalo get-up trick or treating), and obviously dealing with some serious trauma and rage issues. He’s not doing well at school, awkward in that teenage boy way, and constantly skipping out on class to go back to grandma’s house, but not really for any other reason than to just hang. “Rich Hill” finds these boys probably right before they get into drugs and booze (at least we only see them consume mass quantities of Monster energy drinks), and they are all extremely tight with their family units, at least for the time being.
“Rich Hill” doesn’t impose an agenda on its viewers in any real way. Depending on where you come from and what your background is, you might be horrified or mystified or find familiarity in these specific lives. All that matters though, is that it’s real, and these are very real people with real lives and problems and emotions. In a time when the middle class is being pushed to the limit, a film like this shows us just what that looks like: Harley walking down a street where every store is boarded up and abandoned, where his grandma can’t buy Monster on food stamps, where Andrew’s family doesn’t have a stable home and often doesn’t have gas for heating water. That’s the reality of economic instability, and these boys and their families live it uncomplainingly. Ultimately, it’s a story of survival.
The film is gorgeously photographed, which lends to its dreamy and captivating quality, which is crucial since there’s no real plot—it just follows these boys and their lives for an unspecified amount of time, and we watch them grow and change and learn in the process. The excellent score by Nathan Halpern boosts the moody, mesmerizing and immersive effect that the film has. A truly moving and edifying film, “Rich Hill” is the type of media object that could and should be put in a time capsule for future generations. For urbane coastal types, it can seem unbelievable that a place like this exists, encompassing both the nostalgic dream of retro Americana (green lawns, youthful mischief, 4th of July sparklers) and the devastating blight that has crept into the American dream. And that’s why “Rich Hill” is an important film, for capturing these stories in such an authentic and artful manner and with a great deal of sensitivity and respect. [A-]