Rich Hill, Missouri, is a small town of less than 1400 located about 90 minutes south of Kansas City. The town’s citizens are a mixture of the working class and the poverty stricken, but they hold on to hope. A new documentary, simply called Rich Hill, paints a picture of the town as seen through the eyes of three of its residents, all teenaged boys.
The first boy is Andrew, a likeable 14 year old who plays football on the school team and kids around with his twin sister. Andrew’s family moves frequently, with him and his sister rattling off at least a dozen places where they’ve lived in their short lives, always using Rich Hill as a home base of sorts. Next is Appachey, a 13 year old loner who has been diagnosed with OCD, ADHD, and Asperger’s, among other ailments, and is “not compliant” with medication. He lives with his single mother and a small platoon of siblings, and puts up a tough front but, on the inside, is a sensitive kid who writes in his journal, skateboards, and does graffiti art. Finally, there’s Harley, a 15 year old boy who lives with his grandmother due to the fact that his mother is in jail for trying to kill his father. Harley has obvious anger issues, and is actually a pretty scary guy – at one point, he wants to buy a new knife, but doesn’t have any money, exhibiting that he has memory problems as well when he digs through his wallet and says “I had money in here the other day, I must have spent it on Burger King the other day, I remember having Burger King.” However, despite his walking-the-edge demeanor, Harley is a pretty funny guy. All of the boys are characters, with different degrees of charisma and charm, and they make Rich Hill both an interesting and entertaining documentary.
Directors Tracy Droz Tragos (who cut her teeth on documentary television shows like “E! True Hollywood Story” and “Independent Lens”) and Andrew Droz Palermo (who did the cinematography for You’re Next and V/H/S) really got the boys to open up to them in Rich Hill, so the film has a true insider’s perspective of the town. In reality, Rich Hill could be anywhere in America; the film is not an indictment of the town, but a portrait of the uphill struggles of Middle America, concentrating on the silent victims of the economy – the children. The boys are very honest and forthright in their discussions with Tragos and Palermo, to the point of revealing things that they have never talked about with anyone else before. For example, Andrew waxes on about his love for his family and his frustration over constantly having to move, often secretly in the middle of the night. Similarly, Appachey confesses that he wants to move to China to become an art teacher because “paintings from China are friggin’ awesome,” consisting of cool stuff like dragons and warriors and such. Most heartbreaking is Harley revealing why his mother tried to kill her husband – he was sexually abusing Harley – and discussing how he still loves her despite only being able to talk with her for a few minutes each week. The boys trust and befriend Tragos and Palermo, and that friendship spills over onto the screen; in one scene, Harley is rushing to catch his school bus when he hopefully turns to the camera and asks, “are you guys gonna be at school today, too?” The trust factor makes Rich Hill a brutally honest depiction of growing up with hope in a world of hopelessness.
Truth be told, there’s not much of a narrative story to Rich Hill, it’s just slices of life from the three boys. For the most part, the boys act their ages, constantly playing it up for the cameras and trying to look cool or tough for the crew. Appachey comes off as a bit of a little punk, and Harley seems like he’s always about to explode in a rage of violence. The one subject of the film that the viewer really wants to see succeed is Andrew; he’s a very upbeat, positive young man who is trying to make lemonade out of the lemons that have been given to him and his family. The audience roots for Andrew. At one point, he sums up his outlook on life by saying “God has to be busy with everyone else – eventually he will come into my life – I hope it happens, it’s gonna break my heart if it don’t.” That can pretty much sum up the attitude of every citizen of Rich Hill.