Americans have an interesting relationship with poverty, perhaps more so than any other culture on the planet. The “dream” as it were, is one that is still generally assumed to be shared by most Americans and even keeps hordes of the working poor from voting for policies that might improve their lives (like greater redistribution country’s increasingly concentrated wealth, for instance) because they genuinely believe that they too might be filthy rich one day. For many of the people of rural Missouri however, particularly its youth living in the shadow of a now years-long economic depression, poverty isn’t just a part of life, it’s an all-encompassing cycle that is near impossible to break. This is the America of Rich Hill, a powerful new documentary from filmmakers (and Missouri-bred cousins) Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos.
“I never had any hopes and dreams” says Delena, the mother of Appachey, a surly 13 year-old misfit and one of three main subjects of the film. It’s one of many powerful emotional blows that the characters onscreen are amazingly forthcoming with, allowing access into their squalid homes and desperate hearts with incredible candor. The film weaves Appachey’s story into a year-long tapestry that includes the lives of two other boys: the charming and hopeful 15 year-old Andrew, who looks as though he’d be captain of the football team if his destitute family weren’t constantly moving towns, and the troubled but funny 16 year-old Harley, who is struggling to come to terms with abuse, his violent temper, and his mother’s recent jail sentence. The kids live separate lives with distinct storylines, but their shared cultural heritage binds them and the documentary.
At first glance (and certainly from my perspective during the film’s first few minutes, watching it in a theatre in one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods of one of the wealthiest cities on the continent) Rich Hill could be perceived as poor-sploitation, like another VICE troll meant to stir up pity in film festival attendees who will go on to lament the subjects’ woes over expensive cocktails long after the credits have rolled. But there’s no room for such cynicism in the viewing experience, and the bare honesty that these boys share with the camera – and in turn the world – is devastating but immediately sympathetic. As Tragos recently discussed while promoting the film on The Daily Show, there is a tendency in Western culture to believe that poor people are poor because they’re lazy (or addicted to drugs, etc.) – that this desperate existence is one that is chosen. By taking us intimately into these lives over the course of a whole year, the barriers are completely broken what is left is (hopefully) compassion for how difficult these cycles are to break.
Take Andrew; the kid has a heart of gold. His mother is addicted to pills and his father is chronically unemployed. The family moves constantly, from near-condemned homes to relatives’ couches, boiling water for baths with a stove pot and an electric iron. But Andrew’s heart is so filled with hope, affection and wisdom beyond his years that you can’t help but share his naive hope that he’ll one day rise above the odds. In another of the film’s most heart-breaking sound bites, Andrew assumes that despite all his praying, God is too busy with other people to get to him, but that one day he will.
Or then there’s Harley, perhaps the film’s most troubling character, who has been dealt such a shitty hand that it’s no wonder he can’t keep himself engaged with school and struggles with an explosive temper (which we rarely see on screen.) But in one of the film’s sharpest moments – its final scene – the fourth wall is broken and Harley jokes around with the film crew, trying to make the camera operator laugh. It’s funny, and indicative of how generous these kids have been with their time and their lives for the sake of a piece of art over which they have no control. It’s also heartbreaking, watching him walk off and onto the school bus, laughing about the how preposterous the whole thing is; we all know the reality is that the cameras are going to pack up and leave, but Harley’s often-painful existence is going to keep on going. This film isn’t a scathing indictment but a portrait of an American condition, one that is often overlooked or condemned as the fault of the victim. But the truth is pretty plain: it can be really, really hard out there.