Exit the interstate to venture across the moonscape of rural America, and you may glimpse a breed of alien that looks vaguely human but subsists on our trash.
They’re called the poor, and although their city cousins get some occasional, sensationalized coverage in the press, the whiter and more-numerous rural poor are almost invisible.
Rich Hill, Mo., is a town of 1,396 souls, halfway between Kansas City and Joplin. The evocative documentary named for the town focuses on three dirt-poor boys whose lives are effectively over before they are old enough to drive.
Andrew is conscientious and friendly, a handsome athlete who might have grown into the prom king under different circumstances. Harley is a slow-witted fighter who collects commando knives with whatever money he can scrounge. And Appachey is a brooding skateboarder whose medications for attention disorders can’t keep him pacified.
Beside poverty, what the boys have in common is familial dysfunction. Andrew's handyman father, who dreams of being a Hank Williams tribute artist in Branson, has moved his son, daughter and brain-impaired wife a dozen times in the same number of years.
Appachey’s father disappeared when the boy was 6, leaving the articulate kid in the hands of a hoarder mom whose vocabulary is confined to variations of “Shut up!”
And Harley is being raised by a grandmother because his mother is in prison for the attempted murder of a husband who’d raped the boy.
Co-director cousins Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos, whose parents were raised in Rich Hill, let the painful stories emerge naturally, without prodding questions or talking-head experts who place the boys’ grim lives in the larger context of the post-industrial economy. We can see for ourselves that the town is an empty husk, that the boys consume poisons and that a trip to Wal-Mart would qualify as a luxury vacation.
Ironically, Appachey dreams of moving to China, where he thinks he might get paid for drawing dragons.
In one of the film’s most remarkable scenes, we see the traditional American dream limping down Main Street on the Fourth of July, as old-timers on a parade truck play a tortured version of “This Is My Country.” But although the boys launch fireworks into the twilight skies above the railroad tracks, the holiday that best captures their worldview is Halloween, when they can dress like cutthroats and collect a few more handfuls of candy before they get too old.
“Rich Hill” won the best documentary prize at this year’s Sundance film festival, largely for the exquisite imagery and the bittersweet focus on character. But perhaps the saddest thing about the film is the thought that nobody raised in the poorer quarters of Rich Hill could have made it.