“Rich Hill” is reminiscent of the “Up” series — the acclaimed series of eight documentary films that began following a group of 7-year-old British children in 1964, subsequently checking in every seven years to re-examine their lives on camera. The new documentary is only one film, but its stories of three Midwestern boys ages 13 to 15 are just as poignant, and may leave you awake at night wondering about these young men’s futures.
“Rich Hill” doesn’t just make you feel like you know these boys; it makes you care about them.
The film centers on Andrew, Appachey and Harley, all of whom live in Rich Hill, Mo., a struggling former coal town near the Kansas border. Unlike the “Up” films, which profiled both working-class kids and wealthy toffs, “Rich Hill” focuses on youngsters who have few material things. Not only are their financial circumstances tight, but their lives also are achingly out of joint.
Appachey, the youngest, was abandoned by his father at age 6 and lives with his mother and several siblings in a house that looks like it has been hit by a cyclone. He’s an angry child and takes medication for a number of conditions, including bipolar disorder.
Harley, the oldest, is a chronic truant, with a mother in prison for reasons that, when revealed, will break your heart. He lives with his grandmother in a doublewide trailer and is addicted to cigarettes and junk food.
Andrew is the sweetest and most seemingly stable of the bunch, with an intact family, including a younger sister whom he clearly adores. But even his life is not without turbulence. He has moved so many times in his young life that he can’t keep track. During the filming, he moves a couple of more times, a result of his dreamer father’s inability to stick with a job that is both personally rewarding and lucrative. Although it’s never explicitly stated, Andrew’s mother appears to suffer from agoraphobia.
The boys don’t hang out with each other. Directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo (cousins whose parents grew up in Rich Hill) tell the boys’ stories by jumping from subject to subject, seemingly randomly. Yet although the narrative is disjointed, it slowly develops a kind of emotional coherence that pulls you in and swallows you up, like a whirlpool. Slowly, inexorably, you become connected to these three fragile lives.
“Rich Hill” is not a happy film, and the voyeurism of the sometimes tragic lives it probes may prove hard to stomach. Situations arise involving the juvenile justice system, and an on-screen title near the end of the movie reveals that more bad things occurred after the cameras stopped rolling.
It is not, however, a film without hope.
If the filmmakers had wanted to make a documentary about dead-end lives, that would, it seems, have been easier and less affecting than “Rich Hill.” Apart from Andrew, the movie’s subjects aren’t especially likable all the time. Yet even these three boys, as difficult as their circumstances — and occasionally their personalities — may be, evince a kind of potential to turn things around that is almost, despite all evidence to the contrary, inspirational.
★ ★ ★ ★
Unrated. At West End Cinema and the Avalon. Contains obscenity and smoking by minors.