Review: 'Rich Hill' Is a Tough But Rewarding Climb

Rich Hill

Depending on your view of what's fair and how stardom is supposed to work, the crowdfunding model may not be the best way for projects like Zach Braff's Wish I Was Here or the Veronica Mars movie to bridge the gap between their creators' hearts and the audience's eyes. On the whole, though, it's a fairly exciting step forward for independent cinema, and documentaries like the gut-wrenching Rich Hill offer painfully compelling proof.

Funded with nearly $65,000 in funding from backers who kicked in for the Kickstarter campaign launched by co-directors/cousins Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos, this slim 91-minute documentary offers a window into the lives of three poverty-stricken families from tiny Rich Hill, MO -- chiefly through the eyes of tween/teenage boys Andrew, Appachey, and Harley. They're never seen interacting on camera, and may not know each other at all, but Palermo and Tragos' subjects share much more than a ZIP code; in fact, but for a few lucky breaks, most of us could be in their shoes.

That's the chilling subtext beneath what otherwise tends to be a fairly gently ambling film. The directors, both of whom have family in Rich Hill, film these desperate living situations with a calm and non-judgmental eye; often, when the viewer's given a glimpse into some truly depressing byproduct of poverty, like Andrew's father being forced to simultaneously warm a half-dozen small pans of water via different heat sources (including an upside-down iron) in order to run a bath, it's done with a little bit of humor and a stiff upper lip. You might feel pity watching Rich Hill, but the directors aren't asking for any, and neither are their subjects.

As we meet Andrew, Appachey, and Harley, what's initially striking is the differences between them: Andrew is a healthy kid with a relentlessly upbeat demeanor and an attractive, open smile, while Appachey is a loner with a host of emotional issues -- and Harley is seen talking about his hair-trigger temper and shopping for knives. But, as Andrew explains in the film's opening moments, the residents of Rich Hill aren't bad people; they're more than their cluttered lawns and sagging roof lines, and each of these boys has a lot more to their story than one might initially suspect.

And as those stories develop, the movie goes in a different direction than you might expect. Rich Hill isn't a treatise on economic inequality, and it isn't an uplifting sermon about bootstrapping Americans; it's ultimately a movie about choices, and how youth's seemingly infinite horizon of possibilities slowly gets whittled down as we, consciously or unconsciously, choose our fate -- until for some of us, those choices leave us trapped in circumstances that, although we had a hand in creating them, seem all but impossible to undo, and ultimately shape the lives of our loved ones along the way.

Who hasn't been there? Who hasn't made life-altering mistakes? Who doesn't have memories of decisions they might have made differently? Without being pushy about it, Palermo and Tragos make it clear that Rich Hill is just a bad break or two away for most of us, and the result is a movie that will leave you feeling shaken, heartbroken, and probably pretty damn grateful. Not an easy watch by any means, but perhaps a necessary one.

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Jeff is an entertainment writer and editor whose work currently appears at a variety of sites, including Rotten Tomatoes, Paste, American Songwriter, Popdose, Dadnabbit, Diffuser, and Ultimate Classic Rock.

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