‘Rich Hill': Documentary Focuses on Teens in Rural Poverty

By Mark Walsh — November 21, 2014 2 min read
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Poor families in rural America do not get much media attention. Or when they do, it’s disturbing reality-TV treatment like the recently canceled TLC channel show “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”

“Rich Hill” is a documentary offering a more serious look at life for youngsters in outlying Middle America, including some aspects of their schooling.

The film follows three teenage boys in dysfunctional families around Rich Hill, a Missouri town of about 1,300 some 70 miles south of Kansas City, Mo.

Harley is a 15-year-old whose mother is in prison. He lives with his grandmother in a trailer, smokes, and gets into fights at school.

“I’ll be fighting someone one minute and not even remember why I’m fighting him,” Harley says.

Appachey is 12 as the film begins and has attention deficit disorder and other medical conditions. He lights his cigarettes in the toaster and verbally spars with his mother about cleaning up their ramshackle house.

“You’re cuteness has reached its limit for the day,” she tells him. Appachey dreams of becoming an art teacher in China, because he would get to draw dragons all day.

The heart of the film is Andrew, 13, whose mother is ill and whose father strives to provide for his family, including Andrew’s young sister, in a tough economy in an area with few opportunities.

“People walk by us with their noses 50 miles in the air, acting like they’re better than us,” Andrew declares early in the film. “I don’t fall for that. We’re not trash. We’re good people.”

The thoughtful Andrew has several other poetic moments in the film.

Rich Hill - Theatrical Trailer from Andrew Droz Palermo on Vimeo.

“Rich Hill,” directed by Tracy Drog Tragos and Andrew Drog Palermo, had a short theatrical run this summer and appeared last week at DOC NYC, the New York City documentary festival. The film, which won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival this year, is also available for viewing on iTunes.

The 92-minute film shifts among the three boys. Their modest lives are juxtaposed against the rhythms of small-town America: fireworks on the Fourth of July, trick-or-treating on Halloween, and high school football.

At one point, Andrew and his family move to another Missouri town, where life briefly seems to take a turn for the better. Andrew makes the football team. His father, who earns the occasional buck as a Hank Williams Jr. “tribute artist,” will take any other work he can get and dreams of giving his kids a shopping spree at Walmart or the Dollar Store. When the dad fills his car’s tank with just $5 worth of gas at a discount service station, you know money is still tight.

Meanwhile, Harley seems to try to get out of school quite a bit. “You play the sick card too much,” his principal tells him.

Appachey gets a long-term suspension from school over a fight and has to finish the school year at the county detention center.

All three boys face additional hardships, some shown in the film, others revealed in updates on the film’s Web site. The film is beautifully shot and scored with music that hauntingly captures the grimness of the boys’ circumstances but somehow also suggests hope for the future.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.