The former coal mining town of Rich Hill, Mo., is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it towns that litter the byways and highway exits of the American landscape, a reminder of past economic growth gone to seed. Offering a microcosmic view of the increasing poverty afflicting the country, the filmmakers direct their lens on three boys growing up in this impoverished community in the doc Rich Hill. Granted unfettered access to the boys’ lives, the film is more meditative and thoughtful than the usual handwringing exercises that occupy the “look at these poor people” subgenre, but ultimately, it's unable to transcend its trappings.
We first meet Andrew, an optimistic 13-year-old who lives with his nearly bedridden mother, unemployed handyman father, and his twin sister. Andrew seems the most self-aware of his reality, but refuses to give up on a better life. Harley, 15, is trying to get out of the shadow of a horrific assault by his stepfather which ultimately sent his mother to prison. Living with his grandmother, he is a chronic truant at school, has unsurprising anger issues, and unfortunately, fanciful goals about his future. Finally, there is Appachey, a 12-year-old who has been diagnosed with a cavalcade of learning disorders. He spends his days skating around town, fighting with his mom, and smoking heavily. Dreaming of one day teaching art classes in China, Appachey seems mostly ignored by his family (he has an indeterminate number of sisters, his dad left when he was 6); at one point, his mother tells him that it’s his choice to take his medication or not. There are varying schools of thought on parenting, but I would hazard that leaving important medical direction to children is not among them.
It’s grim stuff, to be sure, but cousins Palermo and Tragos have made a film that borders on rhapsodizing the often miserable conditions and circumstances of these boys’ lives. Constantly lingering on the clutter and trash that surround them, the film tries to attain the feeling of some poverty tone poem, using magic-hour idyll in lieu of emotional resonance that’s straight out of the Terrence Malick playbook. Rich Hill attempts to lay bare these kids’ lives, striving for gentle intimacy, but the result feels more like arthouse pandering.