“We’re not trash, we’re good people,” insists 14-year-old Andrew in “Rich Hill,” an open-hearted portrait of impoverished American life named after the tiny Missouri town where directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo went searching for teens who were both wholly individual and universally representative of the challenges kids face in such communities. The co-helmers settled on three subjects, embracing young Andrew’s words as a sort of mantra, determined to penetrate the stereotype and reveal the lively personalities struggling beneath. Reception will be warm but limited for this nobly intentioned yet narrowly targeted Sundance grand jury prizewinner.
After assembling the Emmy-winning “Independent Lens” docu “Be Good, Smile Pretty” as a way to better understand her late father, Tragos decided to delve deeper into her dad’s background by exploring the spot where he grew up. To assist with the project, she enlisted her cousin Palermo — a gifted cinematographer with a poet’s eye — and together, they approached Rich Hill, population 1,393, with the goal of doing justice to the sort of folks who otherwise appear only occasionally in the background when some sort of flood or tornado or sensationalized human-interest story makes the news.
But everything about the three principal teens registers as deserving of “human interest” to “Rich Hill’s” two helmers, whose generous attitude draws us into this deeply empathetic film. Even the choice of which kids to profile — when the American heartland abounds with equally fascinating cases — reveals a sensibility that isn’t preoccupied with finding the most deserving subjects, but rather, one that sees merit in imperfection.
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For example, 15-year-old Harley has trouble focusing on school, but the more you get to know this good-humored young man, the trickier it is to imagine how he could possibly experience a normal childhood — assuming such a thing exists at all. Early on, the docu reveals that Harley’s mother has been incarcerated for trying to kill his stepfather. It takes longer to realize that her reason for the attack (which Harley’s mother inexplicably chose to withhold in court) was because she had learned the man was sexually assaulting her son.
Just 13, Appachey manages classroom assignments well enough, but jeopardizes his chances every time he loses his temper — the sort of thing rich kids can manage through prescription drugs. He’s a contradictory soul, “mature” enough to smoke a cigarette while discussing the dad who walked out when he was 6, yet far too naive to imagine what he wants from life. In one scene, he talks about moving to China to become an art teacher, imagining an existence where he’d “get to draw dragons all day,” but his dreams seem a long way off as his mother turns him over to the juvenile justice system.
Countering the usual perception that teenage delinquency results from absentee parents and amoral upbringing, all three of these kids have strong female support at home. Harley’s grandmother seems a bit too permissive, perhaps, and Andrew’s mom can’t convince her husband to settle down long enough for their life to stabilize, but she has instilled solid Christian values in her son. Pouring his attention into prayer and self-improvement, Andrew optimistically figures that “God is busy with everyone else” but will reveal His plan eventually.
As promised, they’re “good people,” but the American Dream seems impossibly out of reach for all three, which is precisely the tragedy the directors want strangers to consider. Surfacing at Sundance, where Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making “Boyhood” presents the happy-ending version of rural coming-of-age, “Rich Hill” feels equally attuned to poignant small moments that collectively amount to childhood: Harley reinventing himself for Halloween, Appachey amusing himself beneath an icy bridge or Andrew catching the local girls’ attention.
From a technical perspective, the pic feels standard enough, alternating between verite observation, in which the camera seems not to exist, and a casual homevideo style, where the kids seem to be performing for its benefit. Both dynamics can only be possible when dedicated filmmakers spend as much time with their subjects as these two do, capturing nearly 450 hours that had to be pared down to a relaxed yet resonant 93 minutes by editor Jim Hession (who dealt with a similarly unthinkable volume of footage on “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present”). Though mixed by Skywalker Sound, the doc actually comes across somewhat harsh to the ear, aurally no match for Palermo’s stunning visual instincts.