REVIEW: Rich Hill

4 09 2014

Rich Hill“We’re not trash – we’re people,” utters Andrew, a teenager growing up in the kind of town you’d only stop in to top off your gas tank.  He forms one portion of the triptych that is “Rich Hill,” a documentary that takes a startlingly unidealized look at what it means to grow up in the eponymous small rural community.

For all those who think the Hollywood intelligentsia do nothing but sneer at the flyover states as they peruse their box office reports, think again.  Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Dragos provides an extremely fair snapshot of their three young subjects, and they present it without the benefit of easy irony.  When prohibited from looking down on the boys of “Rich Hill,” we can look inside of them far more meaningfully.

The film peers in on life in progress, although not all the narrative threads inspire like innocent and good-natured Andrew.  “Rich Hill” also follows Appachey, a heavily medicated troublemaker who lights his cigarettes in toasters, as well as juvenile delinquent case Harley.  How to feel about them isn’t exactly straightforward since the directors avoid discussing the issue of societal forces battling personal agency.

Save for a brief interlude of waxing political on the nature of the prison system, “Rich Hill” steers clear of sweeping social statements altogether.  (You’ll certainly never hear the term “culture of poverty” being thrown around here.)  The documentary opts not to didactically tell us what to think, instead opting to show us something as it is and allowing our own thoughts to arise organically.

This method is certainly not the easiest way to consume factual information.  It may be, however, the most rewarding way to gain insight into a way of life.  “Rich Hill” pulls no punches when depicting the bleakness of poverty, and it can be gut-wrenching to watch these children get dragged through the mess of their parents’ lives.  Yet it also does not deny us the chance to see these young children enjoying the simple pleasures of life, such as the wonder of a firecracker on the Fourth of July.

These contradictions are at the very heart of the film, which toggles freely between a tone of hope and hopelessness.  As Palermo and Dragos refrain from large value judgments, we’re largely left to extract our own grand takeaway from “Rich Hill.”  No matter what you take away from the film, though, it would be nearly impossible to leave without a little bit more compassion for the kinds of people portrayed.  B+3stars

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