Before the collapse of industrial empires like Detroit, there was rural America. And rural poverty has been forgotten for much longer than the most excessive architectural subjects of ruin pornography have existed. Andrew Droz Palmero and Tracy Droz Targos’s Sundance documentary, Rich Hill, is a reminder of a whole culture that is rarely found in the camera’s eye.
As reminders go, it is one of the more humane. It does not make its protagonists instruments of a broader “socially responsible” agenda. Completely absent is the voiceover which we have come to expect from Michael Moore’s treatments of American poverty or Dinesh D’Souza’s blunderings on American success. The three boys at the center of the film—Andrew, Harley and Appachee—all speak for themselves; and they do a good job of it.
Rich Hill, for those unfamiliar with Missouri geography, is the town in which the subjects live intermittently. What else still abides there, apart from its semi-traumatized communities, is difficult to say. There are hints of the America Dream at the peripheries. Andrew’s father waves to the passing trains as though he assumes that they will be gone as quickly as they have come. there is the occasional semi-truck with taillights flashing contemplatively as its driver seeks the exits for the highways but never stops—there are no local diners anyway.
This is not to say that the community into which Rich Hill has developed is devoid of neighborliness or that its residents are hopeless. Andrew, the most articulate of the three protagonists, takes full advantage of whatever social capital the town is able to provide, whether it is by mowing the lawns of neighbors for about $20 a day or walking a few miles to school every morning, while it is still dark, to take advantage of their warm showers.
And none of the protagonists considers himself to be poor. There is never discussion of seeking out social services or outside help. To the extent that the audience does see the three boys interact with whatever bureaucracy remains, it is typically in an antagonistic way—although the antagonism is not always justified. Harley (whose mother is serving a prison sentence for attempted murder) is constantly confronting his principal, responding stalwartly that he does not need school as long as he has his family. And family appears to offer the only respite that they have from the rest of the world.
But Rich Hill is not a place in which life is nasty, brutish and short. Life is much more likely mundane, isolated and long. Ennui creeps in at every corner, as in one scene where Appachee attempts to amuse himself by methodically breaking the film of ice that has formed over ponded water by the side of a railroad track.
Some critics and social commentators, who saw the movie as a call to action or arms, asked why the film does not show more interaction with the state bureaucracy. Don’t these people know what kind of benefits exist to prop them up? But this misses a point of which the filmmakers themselves might not be aware: The ennui which keeps communities like this in poverty is—to a lesser extent—a problem for many more Americans on the other side of the track. And this persistent sense that life, while having some meaning, has no real significance is something for which no social program exists.
This is what makes Rich Hill at once difficult and encouraging to watch; difficult because it suggests the persistence of a disorder which cannot be fixed by any level of political or technical rationalism, but encouraging because it suggests that this persistence is countered by humane and familial love which may not overcome the miseries of poverty entirely, but which allow even adolescents to be defined by more than their circumstances.
In one of the most beautiful monologues of the film, Andrew speaks of how he worships God every day, though he believes that, for the moment, God must be busy helping others. And yet, despite the fact that his family lacks a home which they can call their own, warm water and steady work, they do not seem to live in a world abandoned or forgotten by God. The family’s lives may not be enviable, but they have dignity. The fact that money cannot buy that may not be a consolation, but it is enough to make people who are so often invisible difficult to forget.