To look at the 13-year-old Appachey is to think the worst about him. He’s a sullen, pudgy kid with an attitude toward his mom and perhaps a vendetta toward life as he aimlessly breaks ice in an abandoned lot. Even his name, a misspelled pronunciation of a Native American tribe, just makes you wonder about this kid and his family. When we first meet him in the documentary “Rich Hill,” we see him light a cigarette in an oddly placed toaster in the middle of his house’s foyer. Then he explains how his father walked out on him when he was 6 and never came back.
“We’re not trash,” says Andrew, another boy from the small town of Rich Hill, Missouri. “We’re good people.” They’re good people, but they don’t have good lives, and it affects them in ways that can make it hard to find the good in them. In the documentary “Rich Hill” by Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos, the idyllic, romantic view of Real America is replaced by a tough community and lifestyle where the three kids at its center grow up quick. It’s a highly perceptive and observant, albeit dreary look at adolescence in the Midwest.
Rich Hill, MO is a rural town near the border of Kansas. A sign informs that the population is just 1,396. They have bake sales, 4th of July celebrations, and a high school football team, but there’s really nothing here for these kids.
One of the more optimistic about his life is Andrew. With short, dark hair, a pleasant and charming Midwestern accent and typically seen shirtless with a tone upper body, you get the sense that this community is right where he belongs. And he cares about his family and his friends to the degree that you don’t want to see him one day leave and make it in the “real world,” you just want to see him happy. Only a teenager, he’s already moved roughly a dozen times throughout Missouri and back to Rich Hill time and again. And despite his mother’s poor health and his father’s inability to commit to a job that’ll support the family, he soldiers on with an earnest outlook on life.
Harley shares Andrew’s family values, but he’s far more troubled and volatile. He appears borderline bi-polar and explains that the slightest word could set him off. “I’m very easy to make angry,” he says in a narration as the camera observes him shopping for specialty bowie knives (only $14!). Harley lives with his grandmother now that his mother is in prison, and the directors stunningly keep us in the dark as to why the mother is prison until a bombshell late in the film.
But with a kid like Harley, or Appachey or Andrew, it would be a miracle if by the end of the film any one of them ended up with a better life than the one they have now. “Rich Hill” can be compared to “Hoop Dreams” for how closely it gets to know this community and these lifestyles. At one point Andrew buys just $5 worth of gas, all of 1.5 gallons. In another moment, Harley gets off the phone with his mom in prison, and the camera spots a birthday cake with just one small hunk removed from the tray. And you should see how Andrew’s family prepares a hot bath. It’s remarkably observant filmmaking.
But there’s a hopeful narrative that runs throughout “Hoop Dreams” that lets you know one of those kids will achieve their dreams. The kids of Rich Hill don’t even have dreams or ambitions. They’re destined to be like Appachey’s mother, who had her first kid at 17 right out of high school and was immediately thrust into adulthood. The teenagers here aren’t far off from that fate.
Where “Rich Hill” finds some hope and alleviates some of the more depressing feelings are in small moments of these kids preserving their values and their family ties. One lengthy meeting between Harley and the school principal ends unexpectedly bittersweet when he says he doesn’t need education, only family. And as Appachey faces a juvenile court hearing, the camera glimpses him holding his mom’s hand and finally smiling.
The directors shoot with a spiritual eye, lots of light and movement, and “Rich Hill” at times takes on the beauty of a Terrence Malick movie. It can be awfully dreary to live here, but this is home.