The directors of Rich Hill, cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo, didn’t pick the rural Missouri town at random. Their family hails from Rich Hill, where their grandparents (a teacher and grocer/mailman) were widely known. The remarkable ease their documentary subjects display reflects the trust Tragos (Be Good, Smile Pretty) and Palermo engendered, and their Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner shows obvious affection for this economically depressed community. They capture many extraordinarily candid moments, but Rich Hill does not add up to more than a series of vignettes.
What it offers is a compassionate look at the intricacies of American poverty, where joblessness is only one factor. The teens in Rich Hill also deal with mental health issues and chronic disease, incarceration and abuse, abandonment and instability, discontentment and violence. The educational and juvenile justice systems seem intertwined. Family members develop coping methods, and finding long-term solutions is trumped by daily needs.
At 12, Appachey is defiant and angry, lashing out at his mother, sisters, and classmates, and no longer finding pleasure in skateboarding. With a knife collection and a propensity for outbursts, 15-year-old Harley would be frightening if he didn’t use humor to diffuse his worries. Andrew, 13, possesses a disarming frankness and an optimism that few around him can muster. His frustration with (and love for) an errant father demonstrates an early understanding of the difference between dreams and goals. A return visit (like the Seven Up series) would be welcome. As it stands, Rich Hill feels half-formed.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on August 1, 2014
First published in The Village Voice, 2014.
Rich Hill is available on Netflix