This year's Sundance Grand Jury award winner makes its way to Hot Docs, and it's one of those documentaries that lets the subjects do all the heavy lifting. Using the cinéma vérité observational style of filmmaking, "Rich Hill" is a powerful story about rural living in modern times.
Andrew, Harley and Appachey are three teenage boys trying to make their way through life in the small and relatively poor town of Rich Hill, Missouri. These young bucks are facing troubles beyond their years, with not a lot of support. Too young to strike out on their own, but too old to shirk responsibility, their stories are evidence that give credibility to a haunting version of the American Dream. "Rich Hill" doesn't provide any answers, but all the questions come from the real lives of its three subjects.
The most endearing character in this trio has to be 14-year-old Andrew. He's handsome, God-fearing, loves his parents, likes to play football, and even handles his sister with a certain amount of sibling grace. Andrew would be advancing nicely in another family, but he has what he has. His mother seems to be on some sort of permanent disability, and his old man can't seem to make ends meet. Andrew has plenty of excuses for the family's troubles but his resiliency is waning, due to his constant movement from home to home and never being able to put roots down.
Appachey is a troubled kid. At 13 he's working on his chain-smoking status. When he isn't sucking one of those back, his vocabulary is dirtier than his bedroom floor. Appachey's mom loves her boy, but she's at her wits end as a single mom to a gaggle of kids, running reckless in her humble home. Appachey entertains himself by breaking stuff under the local bridge and suffers from multiple mental problems: ADHD, bipolar disorder and a bad attitude to boot. Despite all of his difficulties, he is a magnetic character, and strangely engaging.
Finally, there's Harley. His mom is in jail for attempted murder, and Grandma is doing to her best to cope with a very angry young man. An alarming opening scene has him trying to buy an elaborate-looking hunting knife at the local sporting shop. In another chapter, he pals around with fellow Insane Clown Posse Juggalo friends, face paint and all. He speaks with the cadence of Napoleon Dynamite, but he isn't doing it for the laughs.
The irony of the film's title is not lost on the directors of "Rich Hill." Rich Hill is not a wealthy region, and that's especially true for these three kids. The Midwest hamlet is home to about 1400 people, including the families of the filmmaking cousins, Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo. The duo started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the film, and luckily for us, it was funded.
These boys are trying, but is the camera scrutinizing them? There is the potential to exploit their troubles by voyeuristically filming their lives. Watching their stories unfold, it's clear that the filmmakers are not belittling Harley, Appachey or Andrew. Instead, they're letting the viewer in on the social and economic realities that many face in everyday America. It would be unfair to label the trio as hopeless, except for the fact that Appachey's mother admits that she never had any hopes or dreams herself. Will the circle of life continue, or is there a glimmer of hope for this next generation? Rich Hill doesn't tackle why this is happening, but it's an unforgettable doc.
Isabel Bader Theatre, Wed., Apr. 30, 4:00 p.m.
Hart House Theatre, Sun., May 4, 12:30 p.m.