Once a year, on the anniversary of the country’s independence, a carnival rolls into the sleepy, impoverished town of Rich Hill, Missouri. Lights go up, fireworks go off, and the residents of the community (population 1,396, according to a prominently displayed sign) come out to bask in the neon glow of celebration. For the makers of Rich Hill, an artful new documentary about life in the titular town, this annual event works as the perfect bookend—a place to start and stop filming, a framework for their yearlong study of adolescence on the fringe. It also provides the strikingly symbolic image of a ferris wheel in motion. This is a movie, the ride reminds, about constantly moving but never getting anywhere new.
Winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Rich Hill narrows its focus to the plight of three teenagers whose experiences are treated like a microcosm for the entire area. Appachey, 13, acts up at school; his father walked out years earlier and his mother, busy with a house full of kids, seems unable to control his behavior. Harley, 15, who lives with his grandmother, makes frequent phone calls to his mother in prison, and struggles with his intense anger—feelings the film gradually links to a past trauma. And then there’s Andrew, 14, the most ostensibly well-adjusted of the three boys. A dreamer whose soulful adolescent musings provide the film with lots of voice-over material, Andrew complains of constantly being uprooted, his father moving the family someplace new every few months, only to yank everyone back to Rich Hill shortly thereafter.
The movie exists mainly as an act of social advocacy, showing how one portion of the population lives and offering a sobering rebuke to pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps rhetoric. Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos, both of whom have ties to the community, are after the way economic hardship perpetuates itself, tethering several generations of people to places without opportunities. At the same time, the filmmakers make sure to capture the small ways that some of their subjects sabotage themselves or their offspring. Appachey’s mother, for example, who speaks candidly about the life parenthood denied her, freely admits that she makes no effort to force her son to take his medication. And there’s a very telling scene of Andrew’s father vowing to make up for a hasty move by going on an $800 shopping spree with the kids. Failing to hold down a job, he later confesses that a few hundred dollars would have saved them from having to retreat to their old life.
Though faintly reminiscent of both October Country and Only The Young, Rich Hill nevertheless emerges as a hyper-specific portrait of its eponymous environment. Ironically, it’s actually the shots of the town itself that feel most generic. When not filming their subjects at home or school, Palermo and Tragos offer lots of gorgeous digital sightseeing, training their RED Scarlet camera on flickering street lamps, country roads, and epic fireworks displays. While plenty evocative, these transitional passages—set to a melancholy swell of ambient music—actually make the locale look like any and every small town in America. Then again, perhaps that’s the point: For folks like Andrew and his family, a fresh start is close to impossible. All roads lead back to Rich Hill.