Directors: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos | USA | 2014 | English | 92 minutes
HOT DOCS SHOWTIMES
April 28 7:00 pm | TIFF Lightbox
April 30 4:00 pm | Isabel Bader Theatre
May 4 12:30 pm | Hart House Theatre
In the world of film festivals, Sundance has managed to establish a brand of its own and Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s documentary Rich Hill is a prime example of that style. A grand jury winner in Utah, the film has the well-known Sundance trademarks: a slow pace, an abstract sound track, a poetic aesthetic and lots of intimate monologues. Although it ascribes to the conventions of a specific kind of festival darling, the film is a surprising and sensitive story of three teenagers living in small-town Missouri, struggling with poverty, self-esteem and dysfunctional families.
When we first meet Harley and Appachey, the teenagers come across as social outsiders with an anger problem. Both present a seemingly negative first impression: Harley proudly displays his love of guns and knives and Appachey has creative and colourful ways to tell his mother and others around him off. Only Andrew seems to have his emotions in check and is as a soft-spoken, caring character who loves his immediate family. However, he’s painfully aware of his image and others like him in the community when he says “I know how others see us.” And this hurtful and dismissive image of ‘white trash’ is what the film slowly unravels.
Although Andrew is the one with whom audience sympathies can easily align, it is Harley’s character arch that throws you for a loop. His self-proclaimed love of weapons, soda pop and angry poses are initially off-putting. He fits the profile of a young troublemaker, who won’t make it far beyond high-school before succumbing to a life of crime. And anyway, his mom has got him beat: she’s serving a long jail sentence while Harley has to live with his grandmother. In a particularly introspective moment Harley unexpectedly delivers a passionate few sentences against child abuse and rape, two things he says he “hates more than anything.” It becomes clear that his anger, his love of weapons and his hate of rape and abuse are steeped in painful past experiences. When the audience finally meets his incarcerated mother – a woman we have thus far only heard as a voice on the other end of the telephone – she is actually a loving mother, who is in jail for defending her son against his rapist, her ex-husband.
The film offers more than a portrait of three boys in difficult situations. It is also a portrait of a particular kind of troubled masculinity. Andrew sees his father struggle to keep a job and put bread on the table. In a voice over, Andrew mourns his inability to express his love and support to his father. Appachey and Andrew are both raised by single mothers. Appachey’s mother is overwhelmed by the demands of raising him, a difficult teenage boy struggling with puberty and stunted desires, while having to work, clean and take care of her daughters. Andrew’s mother is painfully absent and the only father figure he has had cost him his childhood innocence.
Rich Hill presents Tragos and Palermo’s intent to poke into a layer of American society that usually produces disdain in middle-class viewers. The film does well developing characters and showcasing their complexity but in the end, it is hard not to feel a shameful kind of hopelessness for Andrew, Appachey and Harley. Once the credit have rolled, it is hard to imagine the boys beyond their squalid, isolated backyards.
Aisha Jamal has a PhD in German Cinema from the University of Toronto. Currently she is teaching at Trent University and Sheridan College. Outside of talking, thinking and writing about film, she is also interested in food and books.