Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: "Rich Hill"

“Rich Hill” is a pure and polished documentary, a Grand Jury prizewinner at Sundance, but can’t escape a fatal sense of incompleteness. It follows the travails of three dirt-poor teen boys in the titular Missouri town for a year or so, as they struggle against back-breaking economic and familial challenges no child should have to face at so tender an age.

Yet -- we leave them much as we found them, with little substantial movement in their squalid lives, and no real insight gained on the part of the audience. ‘Here they are,’ the movie seems to say, ‘and isn’t that terrible.’ We wait expectantly for something more. I never really felt like I got to know any of the boys much past the first five or 10 minutes spent with them.

Their situations range from just plain bad to seriously in danger of falling through the cracks.

Andrew, 14, probably has the best circumstances of the lot. He’s tall, good-looking and athletic, does well in school and at sports, and shares a close love between his parents and sister. (No last names are used for any of the subjects.)

But Andrew’s father Willie works itinerantly, out of choice rather than necessity, as he favors odd jobs over being beholden to any one employer. (He also croons on the side as a rather decent Hanks Williams Sr. tribute act.) And his mother has serious health problems that often lay her up for days at a time, so Andrew acts more as caregiver than receiver.

As a result, money tends to run dry suddenly, usually necessitating the family pick up sticks and move somewhere else. One wrenching scene shows Andrew and his sister trying to remember all the places they’ve lived.

Appachey is 13 and seems to wreak havoc on everything he touches. Our first glimpses of him tell the tale: he lights a cigarette using a toaster, then accidentally flips his skateboard down a storm drain. There’s a telling moment where he starts to walk off, affecting manly nonchalance, but he turns around to hunker down on his knees to try to retrieve it because hey, it’s his skateboard – transportation, rebellion and identity all in one.

His mother is authoritarian and somewhat clueless, dispensing harsh parenting (and sometimes the back of her hand) to Appachey and his siblings in their shabby house, where clothes and trash are underfoot everywhere. After Appachey is put on long-term suspension for a fight at school, his destructive tendencies only seem to escalate. But somewhere inside there is a kid who dreams – he talks about his love for Chinese illustrations, and turns a frozen puddle into a muddy work of art.

Most disturbing of the trio is Harley, who seems to be simultaneously not very bright and extremely stubborn, which is a scary combination. His mother is in jail for attacking his father – the family claims she was protecting the boy from his dad’s sexual abuse – so Harley lives with his ineffectual grandmother. He’s frequently absent from school because he claims he doesn’t feel well. (The film’s website reports that he was subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumor.)

“I’m very easy to make mad,” Harley says about himself, and that’s the simple, scary truth. The filmmakers encourage us to sympathize with Harley – such as when they show him going around to other kids at school on his 16th birthday, asking them if they know what’s special about today, and nobody seems to have a clue.

But more often, I felt less like I was observing Harley’s struggles that intruding upon the descent of a boy desperately in need of help. This young man doesn’t need to have his story told; he needs a raft of social services, a strong parental figure and the privacy necessary to deal with his daunting issues.

There is definitely some value in “Rich Hill.” Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos are technically skilled and chose a brave subject for their documentary. But it feels like the start of something noble, rather than the completion of that endeavor. This movie is a placeholder for a better one.

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