‘Rich Hill’ is a beautiful look at a condition that’s inherently very ugly

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Missouri is in America’s — and the world’s — spotlight right now with news outlets doing their best to cover the events in Ferguson despite a police-enforced media blackout. But nearly five hours southwest of Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on Aug. 9, there is another town that is rising in recognition across America, for it, too, represents a side of America that many people try to forget exists.

That town is called Rich Hill, and it’s the subject of a new documentary from cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo. Tragos’ and Palermo’s parents grew up in Rich Hill. Their grandmother was a third-grade teacher there, and their grandfather was a mail carrier. But a lot has changed since Tragos’ and Palermo’s parents were raised there, so they’ve returned generations later to look at what a Rich Hill upbringing looks like for millennials — namely for three boys, specifically, Andrew, Appachey and Harley.

All three have grown up in poverty, and “Rich Hill” is the story of how they try to cope with it — to fight it, to escape it. “I think people expect us to do good things and have a better future than I do right now,” Appachey says at one point, much wiser than his 13 years. “I don’t even know what to do anymore.” All three boys seem out of their depth at times — and they are. It’s hard enough to make sense of the sometimes-careless cruelty of the world as an adult, let alone as a barely pubescent child. Poverty is a harsh parent and a cycle they’ve been born into that is terribly, terribly hard to break. As Andrew puts it, “I have no say in what happens. They’re the parents. I’m just a kid.”

“Rich Hill” is, frankly, nothing short of breathtaking. Palermo’s cinematography is beautiful, especially his use of panning. He manages to make a subject that alienates large parts of America feel intimate instead, as if the viewer is just an ordinary person passing through this town, privy to all its secrets and citizens instead of being on the other side of a screen, thousands of miles away. Even before the title screen, it’s completely clear why “Rich Hill” won the grand jury prize for best documentary at Sundance this year.

It’s a painful kind of beauty, though, quietly but surely breaking the viewer’s heart. Andrew’s younger sister — who, along with the rest of her family, has moved to escape poverty more than a dozen times before she started high school — wears a necklace of fake pearls over her Elmo T-shirt. Harley and Appachey’s families eat substantially from food stamps.

All three come to terms with the hopelessness of their situations differently: Appachey loves skating and wants to move to China to become an art teacher “because paintings from China are freaking awesome.” Harley is interested in the juggalo subculture and knives: His favorite knife function is the seatbelt cutter, just in case he and his family ever got into a car accident. Andrew puts his faith in God, saying, “I pray every night. Nothing’s came, but that ain’t gonna stop me. This is what goes through my mind: God has to be busy with everyone else. Eventually he will come into my life. I hope it happens. It’s gonna break my heart if it don’t.”

“Rich Hill” is a beautiful look at a condition that’s inherently very ugly, and it seeks to find hope in a place where hope doesn’t naturally grow. Fireworks are an unexpected part of the film, with the town’s Fourth of July 2012 events and Fourth of July 2013 events almost bookending the narrative. One year, Andrew and his sister want to buy some of their own fireworks, those beautiful crazy explosions that pop and shimmer into the sky. And yet, they could largely only afford the ones that pop and bang with just a small crack only a few feet into the air — no glitter, no shimmering vision of fantasy here.

“Rich Hill” opens Friday at Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Contact Tyler Allen at [email protected].