Film Review: Rich Hill

This study of teens trying to make it in a very depressed and depressing heartland would have benefited from more hard info and less pictorial meandering.

Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo train their lens on three cherubic teenage boys who live in the ironically named Rich Hill, in reality an already decayed small town in Missouri. Sweet, personable Andrew, so lithe and handsome he could be the juvenile lead of any youth film if only he could somehow get to Hollywood, has a mother strung out on meds for her depression and a perennially unemployed dad. Chubby Appachey has a history of troublesome behavior stemming from too many completely unsupervised days. Harley's stepfather attempted to rape him. His enraged mother tried to kill her spouse and is serving prison time while the pervert went scot free for lack of evidence; the boy now lives with his grandmother.

The filmmakers have been fortunate in their choice of subjects, for all three boys are winning camera presences. Despite their hardscrabble lives, they are extremely self-possessed and have retained a certain sense of humor, however mordant. But, perhaps under the influence of other artists ranging from Dorothea Lange to, especially, Nan Goldin, the directors of Rich Hill get too caught up in the melancholy pictorialism of the poor setting, with too little information given and too many shots of the desolate town or the kids filling their aimless days with activities like Fourth of July fireworks. There are scattered interviews with the boys’ parents and caretakers, but Tragos and Palermo commit that age-old cinematic mistake of eschewing the "boring" grown-ups and focusing on youth, leaving a myriad of questions unanswered. Nathan Halpern's droning, mournful music is pure cliché.

Harley's story is what one could call the big "get" here, fit for any episode of “Dr. Phil.” The kid is a real survivor, basically good-natured, but with a rather understandable violence that surfaces when he feels frustrated. He is shown shopping for a scary-looking knife, but also heartbreakingly disappointed when no one at school wishes him a happy birthday. He tries to go home but is thwarted by an implacable, by-the-book supervisor who warns him about his numerous absences and accuses him of playing the "sick" card. Harley's fists clench uncontrollably in a way that doesn't look like acting, and in this moment one can almost see how a basic lack of professional empathy added to troubled personal history can result in one of those horrific school massacres.

Click here for cast & crew information.