“God has to be busy with everyone else” — Those are the heartbreaking words said by one of the three boys whose lives filmmakers Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo follow in Rich Hill, a sobering yet vividly human documentary about poverty in small-town, Middle America. From the get-go, it’s apparent that at least one of these boys has been called “white trash,” but the film never treats them with scorn. Instead, cinematographer Droz Palermo captures their lives with incredible grace, so much so that it brings to mind the effervescent films of Terrence Malick. But as pretty as the camera work can be, the details in Rich Hill sting.
The film’s title stems from the name of the run-down Missouri town where the boys live. The first one we meet is Andrew. His family has moved well over a dozen times, making it impossible for the athletic 13-year-old to plant his roots, socially or emotionally, in any place. Still, the boy shows incredible maturity. His attitude is a well from which to take inspiration, and his love for his family just radiates off of him. That can’t be said of the other two boys. One, 15-year-old Harley, adores his mom, but she’s in prison. As such, he lives with his relatives, or whoever can handle his explosive temper. On the surface, he appears like a dopey jokester, but underneath he’s dealing the demons of rage and powerlessness stemming from a crime that shattered his childhood. The third boy is Appachey, a 12-year-old skater smartass who’s unable to put his intelligence toward anything productive. He’s a fighter, to be sure, but he’s filled with such anger that he just lashes out at everyone around him. His mom, who tries to swing the hammer of discipline, just doesn’t have the energy to keep house, look after his siblings and deal with him.
Some have spoken of this film in relation to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. But whereas Boyhood shows a real-life actor growing up before the camera in a fictional flip book of American childhood, Rich Hill is more like a collage of snapshots, artfully composed to feel at once hyper real and hyper poetic. There’s no nostalgia, just a lens through which to see American life. The candidness of the project is a testament to Droz Tragos and Droz Palermo’s skill not only with cameras, but with people. You will root for these boys, and you’ll hold your heart for every mistake they make or wound they suffer. While God might not have time for them, you should make some.
Rich Hill is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.