REVIEW: Rich Hill
Produced by: Tracy Droz Tragos, Andrew Droz Palermo, David Armillei
Edited by: Jim Hession
Cinematography by: Andrew Droz Palermo
Music by: Nathan Halpern
I am not a fan of reality TV. This isn’t exactly a bold statement, I know, but seriously – screw pretty much the whole entire exploitative genre. From absurdly overwrought drama, to manufactured hilarity to peddle some person’s brand or image, to outright delight in the misfortune of others, I hardly see any benefit in reality TV’s existence. The overflow this industry has had into actual reality, what with cameras everywhere at the ready to share some unsuspecting person’s personal issues with everyone, is even more troubling than the stuff people at the very least consent to divulging on television. There’s little artistry in manipulating perception and encouraging schadenfreude with whatever makes it to air. Shame on the people who produce it, and, quite frankly, shame on those who enjoy it, too. I’m not excluding myself in that, mind you. I’ve dabbled in taking pleasure at the horrific performances of admittedly terrible singers and judged the merit of people’s very existence based on a few minutes of footage aired weekly that could have very likely been a façade meant to make the footage seem much more interesting and outrageous than it actually was.
Documentaries, however – at least the good ones – differ from reality TV in that their primary goal is usually to invoke some kind of understanding and empathy; the goal is usually education over entertainment. Though documentarires, too, are edited to fit the purpose of the filmmaker, it’s often with artistic goals in mind, there’s usually a respect for the intelligence of the audience to understand the filmmaker’s intentions and the footage being presented to them.
Rich Hill was one of those frequent recommendations Netflix kept making for me whenever I ventured into the documentaries section, and I’d always shied away from it based on the trite-sounding premise of following three young boys coming of age in a small town in Missouri. Even though I have never seen a documentary on the subject, I felt like had still seen the film before because I’d seen countless coming of age films, many of them set in some Smalltown, USA themselves, often with the perspective of pointing out how much better life is. However, I finally decided to give the 4-star recommendation a shot after having not settled on anything I was really in the mood for, and I quickly realized that I had been misjudging the film about as much as I’d have probably misjudged the three boys at the center of the film.
The three boys are Andrew, Appachey, and Harley, ranging in age from 13 to 16, each living in the tiny, ironically named town of Rich Hill, Missouri, and each of them struggling with issues that are, by and large, strongly tied to the socioeconomic status living in such a small town has practically forced their families into. The directors, cousins who both also hail from Rich Hill, have been given seemingly limitless access to these three boys’ lives over the course of a year, portraying them and their families without censorship and in a strikingly artistic manner that emphasizes truth, meaning, and honesty while demanding empathy for its subjects, even when they’re at their worst.
Andrew, overall, is the good kid of the film – overwhelmingly positive in the face of struggle, apparently well-behaved, and belonging to a family that obviously loves one another, despite their hardships and personal issues. He essentially becomes a portrayal of the best case scenario for someone living in a town like this, but, even then, the outlook is bleak, with his father struggling to keep a job, pay the bills, and keep a home over their heads while struggling to keep his head out of the clouds with nearly delusional hopes. Appachey and Harley, however, are themselves far more troubled.
Appachey is a defiant, foul-mouthed loner with a history of violence and an almost nonexistent fuse. It would be easy to judge him as someone who is just naturally inclined to be an awful person, and yet the film is compassionate enough to begin with one of the more sympathetic interviews in the film, in which Appachey – looking less like the skater punk we’ll see him portray and more like a sorrowful little kid – confesses that he knows people expect more from him than he likely expects of himself. The few glimpses of tenderness between him and his hardened mother are heartbreaking, considering the context of when they were filmed.
Harley, the oldest of the three, seemingly suffers from some mental issues and lacks the necessary guidance he needs through life. Socially awkward, slow in articulation, but quick in wit, he openly acknowledges that there’s something deeply wrong with himself, and we see it, too. So does his financially strained grandmother, who is one of the few people who shows him compassion in spite of himself, with the other being his mother, who is serving time in prison for the attempted murder of his stepfather, who she discovered was raping Harley and who has never been brought up on charges for his actions.
Despite the bleak subject matter, however, the film conveys a strong affection for both the boys and the town they live in, particularly through the way that the footage is composed and through the splendorous musical score. The camera also manages to capture moments of beauty in even the most dilapidated of settings, whether it be simply on an aesthetic level or through capturing the incidental interactions between the film’s subjects and their families. It’s reminiscent of a Terrence Malick film, as others have noted. The film lets the boys’ stories unfold naturally and candidly, but it’s certain to give the necessary context to ensure that audiences are sooner to empathize with the subjects than judge them, even if they might presently be acting terrible. That isn’t to say that the film adds any sort of unrealistic silver lining to the situation. Directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo don’t let their affection for their hometown get in the way of portraying it with all of its scars exposed, and that extends to the people in it.
Rich Hill is a feat of compassionate filmmaking, encouraging audiences to look deeper than the surface level of not even just outer appearances, but also the struggles informing the present actions of people who may pass in and out of your lives. It also successfully gives context to the stereotypes prevalent in popular culture about the people who live in communities like Rich Hill while never once idealizing or misconstruing the facts. By following these three very different boys, whose stories never once overlap, the film achieves the goal of showing how the best, worst, and most troubled among us can each fall victim to unfair situations and find ourselves at the mercy of forces beyond our control.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5