“God has to be busy with everyone else. Hopefully he will come into my life. I hope it happens. It’s going to break my heart if it don’t.” – Andrew
Andrew, Harley, and Appachey are teenage boys living well below the poverty line in Rich Hill, Missouri. Population: 1,393. Each boy has their own dreams, but the reality of their grim, rural surroundings severely limits their chances of obtaining them. Andrew, a sweet, hardworking athlete who loves God and his family, shows the most promise of the trio, but is constantly uprooted by his father in the search for steady employment. Then there are Appachey and Harley, whose anger and frustration sometimes lead to darker outlets. Appachey is a skater who wants to teach art in China one day. Rebellious and prone to violence, he lives in dilapidated squalor with his chain smoking mother and sisters and often gets into fights at school with students and administration. He seems irrevocably lost. Harley is funny and good natured but also socially awkward, lethargic, and obsessed with knives. He is taken care of by his grandmother after his mother is imprisoned for trying to kill his step dad, who Harley claims sexually abused him.
There are thousands of cities in America like Rich Hill, with thousands of children like Andrew, Harley, and Appachey. Small, impoverished working class communities where poverty, prison, drug abuse, and violence are the daily norm and hopelessness and lack of opportunity coincide with high school football, church, and 4th of July parades. Directors (and cousins) Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo chronicle this bleak slice of Americana with empathy and an open heart. Maybe it’s because the filmmakers are from Rich Hill, but they thankfully do not make this an issue film or a political statement. Instead the film’s focus is squarely on the boys who obviously trusted the filmmakers as they share intimate and painful details of their lives.
Stylistically, the film feels less like a documentary and more like a Terrence Malick film; its poetic realism and evocative score help capture the beauty in these bleak settings. Rich Hill is one of the great modern American documentaries and deserves to be held in the same regard as other modern classics like Hoop Dreams. Sobering, yet ultimately uplifting, it is a hauntingly powerful capsule, a mosaic of the impoverished working class, and a critique of the American Dream.
You can watch Rich Hill right now on PBS.com through Feb. 3, 2015.