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January 13, 2016

Rich Hill

by Franz Patrick


Rich Hill (2014)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Documentary filmmakers Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragon take the subject of poverty in America and put it right where it should be: front and center, to make the viewers uncomfortable, to remind us that there are families out there struggling—families who are not necessarily people of color or immigrants—and they could be our neighbors. It is a rich film in that it is eye-opening not only in terms of shedding light on an impoverished rural town but also through the scope of three boys’, ages ranging from thirteen to fifteen, hopes and dreams.

The boys are Andrew, Appachey, and Harley. The camera observes unblinkingly as its subjects talk about what is important to them: a sibling, God, a father finally finding a consistent source of income so that his family can stop moving around, skateboards and skateboarding, a mother in prison and weekly phone calls, making jokes so people can laugh. But the background says a lot, too. Look at the simple houses sitting from several meters away awaiting repair. Notice a plethora of clutter but a lack of books inside homes. The cramped area where a family of six or seven live in.

But these are intelligent young people with big personalities. While not all of them are book-smart, one can tell almost immediately that they’ve lived more than other kids their age that have been raised in comfortable or more affluent households. I know that when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, or even fifteen, the last thing on my mind was whether we have food on the table, if my father was happy with his career, or if we have enough money to pay the rent. I was privileged—very privileged—that my sole focus was to try to do well in school. So then it comes to no surprise that these boys do not appear to value getting an education that much.

Out of the three, all compelling in their own way because each is faced with his own private battle, perhaps one that touched me most is Andrew’s story. Very resilient, observant, and aware of his limitations because of where he comes from, Andrew has a certain way of thinking and speaking that pushes one to think that he will make it someday. In a way, despite the factors against him and his family, his story is hopeful. Notice that his segment is often presented in a poetic, dream-like manner, particularly the few minutes during the Fourth of July. We look forward to his segment as to reassure ourselves that all three will be all right.

“Rich Hill,” intimately and effectively shot throughout, is meant to remind us of countless yet often forgotten small towns in America. But I also think that it is meant to enrage us. At times I felt a mix of sadness and anger by what I’ve seen because these boys—and all children in the same position—deserve better. And I’m not just referring to financial stability. I’m talking about having great role models that can be their friend but also be tough on them when necessary. The film describes poverty not as an entity or a statistic but as crucial and specific things that tend to chip away one’s prospects of a bright future.

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