There is a new subgenre of American documentary filmmaking: Beautiful, haunting elegies on American poverty.
"October Country" captured the struggles of a dysfunctional family in upstate New York, while "Oxyana" found echoes of desperation among drug-addled residents a West Virginian mining town, and this year's "12 O'Clock Boys" presents a lyrical view of daring teen street bikers from low income neighborhoods in Baltimore.
Directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo's "Rich Hill," which won the Sundance Film Festival's grand jury prize for documentary and opens this week, epitomizes the best and worst aspects of this non-fiction storytelling tendency: It's often overwhelming gorgeous and deeply sad in its depiction of three young boys fighting through their youth in the trenches of deep poverty in Rich Hill, Missouri (where the directors grew up). At the same time, it's a meandering portrait that never snaps into narrative focus with the stunning clarity of its images. But that same lack of cohesion reflects the conundrums facing its afflicted characters, enabling "Rich Hill" to share the pathos of their lives even when it doesn't fully gel.
The filmmakers, who also handle the camera work, quickly establish the ethereal qualities of the town during a transcendent opening sequence, which encapsulates the setting with sweeping gestures: We first see glimpses of boys shuffling about their cramped homes among the faster movements of the local elementary school and the static qualities of the city streets. As the music swells and a train rushes past, "Rich Hill" instantly conveys the rush of existence that bears down on the despondent lives at its center. There's an immediate sense of tension with the admission of one young neighborhood resident that the wealthier part of the population regards their community "with their noses 50 miles in the air"; for the rest of the movie, the boys are seen constantly struggling to determine their own confidence in the shadows of such lofty neighbors.
With its constant melancholic tone, which blends voiceovers and somber asides from its characters, "Rich Hill" often feels like a Terrence Malick movie that trades majestic spirituality for burgeoning teen angst. Revealing very few details about its subjects outside of their own admissions, it unfolds with a straightforward verite approach that makes its bleak reality fully immersive.
While the perpetual shifting between a trio of stories never obtains a satisfactory rhythm, but it does serve a point. The directors swiftly establish each distinct personality: Andrew, a soft-spoken, levelheaded man with a lanky frame, helps his peripatetic father work various odd jobs with no real sense of direction; Appachey, a chain-smoking 13-year-old first seen lighting his cigarette with a toaster, coasts around town on a raggedy skateboard and deals with his increasingly complaisant mother; Harley, who suffers from the greatest emotional problems of the three, lives with his grandmother in the wake of his mother's arrest for a dark incident only explained in the movie's final third.
Though none of the boys share a scene together, the varying degrees of discomfort that define their lives form a larger overview of instability. Harley is the most frightening embodiment of neglected youth, his disorders left unmedicated and his anger management issues constantly driving him to reject authority figures. Turning his back on school day after day — as a tense exchange with a school official makes clear — he's a sad figure trapped by his delusions with no firm guide to help him stabilize his situation. Yet that same issue haunts Appachey, a scowling, compact child with the disposition of a disgruntled old man as a result of the neglect surrounding him. Only Andrew seems to have a generally healthy attitude about his life, though that doesn't help his situation.
"Rich Hill" mostly repeats its observations of these characters over the course of a few years, but it manages to convey one strong argument in the implication that the sins of the parents have been visited on their children. "I never had any dreams or hopes," Appachey's mother says, which at least partly explains her son's unearned confidence. The similarly aggressive Harley asserts that he "doesn't need an education, I can make it out there anyway," and has no firm parental figure to tell him otherwise. The ultimate tragedy for these boys is that they have plenty of drive but no direction.
"Rich Hill" constantly explores their situations through sputtering glimpses of individual moments. Though some dramatic exposition develops around Harley's destructive resistance to stay in school and Appachey's behavioral problems with other classmates, the movie generally cycles through their disarray with a perceptive eye for details. The free-roaming structure is salvaged by a persistent commitment to enabling the barren Missouri landscape and the claustrophobic interiors to the define the mood. There are moments when Tragos and Palermo run the risk of transforming their subjects into tools exploited for the sake of the movie's artistic vision, but the best part of "Rich Hill" is that its participants rise above the limitations of the material. "You're looking at me through some special lens or something," Harley says late in the proceedings, linking the subject's willingness to take control of his life with his ability to take control of the movie.
A version of this review ran during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. "Rich Hill" opens in New York this Friday ahead other cities and will be released on VOD on August 5.