Rich Hill, Missouri is a town used like many others recently: as a symbol of America’s crumbling social infrastructure. The documentary Rich Hill focuses on three boys named Andrew, Harley and Appachey from this Missouri town. Rich Hill has many of the familiar signs of ordinary existence; I particularly latched onto the fact that the school has an FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) club. This detail is of no real significance, however given the authenticity of this film, I’m sure you’ll find little details that remind you of home and growing up too.
I could dissect the specific stories and families but you should discover that through the film. Simply put, you should go watch Rich Hill at the Brattle this weekend or on VOD (where it's already available). All the sadly familiar elements of broken Americana are here: mental illness, obesity, child smoking, abandonment, instability, mega sodas, childhood trauma, depressive sleeping, guns, prison, etc. And it’s all very real. You’ll feel sullen and dejected, partly because of how perceptively directors Palermo and Tragos capture these stories. Rather than having interviews with a black background or somewhere pretty, they show these kids and their parents intimately where they play in the streets or in their homes. The houses are hard to look at, as behind almost every interviewee, you can see the walls literally cracking. These people’s homes are literally breaking apart, and it’s quite overtly making you grapple with America’s social devastation of late. It’s a paralyzing experience, to watch this happen and not be able to do anything. It’s definitely not the kind of film that makes me feel like I can go out and do something to help.
The deeper story Palermo and Tragos are telling has been told more than a few times in the last several years, however I don’t think it has been told as authentically. Palermo and Tragos have a very non-invasive style with artfully perceptive moments. They must’ve put a lot of effort into developing their relationships with these kids, as the kids are shockingly candid on camera at times. All that being said, Rich Hill certainly has its flaws; at times it felt like they tried too hard to force visual metaphors, like the frequent focus on cracking walls. It tries a little too hard to be American as well and the overall message feels too familiar at this point.
Years in the future, it won’t exactly matter that Rich Hill felt a little too familiar upon release. I will remember it as the best filmic representation of the decay of America’s social foundations at this time in history and that’s certainly something special.