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Kids in America 

Rich Hill gives us a grim look at the lives of kids growing up in rural poverty

click to enlarge Andrew, 14, puts a face on impoverished children in Rich Hill.
  • Andrew, 14, puts a face on impoverished children in Rich Hill.

You're going to be worried about our kids when you get done watching Rich Hill. Not just your kids, but all the kids out there. The ones you see waiting at bus stops and wandering the streets, looking just a bit too young and too aimless to be where they are.

That's the haunting impact of Rich Hill, a documentary from cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo that follows three teenage boys for more than a year as they navigate life in the titular Missouri town. Rich Hill is home to just 1,300 people who've remained long after the mines closed and most of the shops were boarded up.

We meet Andrew, a hardworking 14-year-old whose hard-luck father moves the family from town to town every few months, while his mother is in bed, suffering from what looks like an addiction to pills. Then there's 13-year-old Appachey, an angry wannabe skateboarder living with his single mother and siblings in a trash-littered house. Finally, we meet Harley, 15, living with his grandmother while his mother is in jail for attempted murder. Medicated for his volatile mood, he feigns sickness to leave school early almost daily and is closely monitored by juvenile services.

The film is shot in a crisp, ironically gorgeous manner, full of tight shots that are far more cinematic than you'd expect from an indie documentary. This approach allows the crushing despair of these kids' poverty-stricken lives to elicit an unexpected amount of empathy. The structure and pacing make for a fluid story that takes us through a calendar year, with a sense of progression (or lack thereof) in the boys' existence. All of this is furthered by brutal honesty from every subject, none of whom seem to hold much back, a testament to the remarkable access these filmmakers earned with these people.

There's a scene where Appachey, suspended from school for assaulting another student, is sprawled on the couch, playing video games on a blurry TV and smoking cigarettes. You realize that there isn't a lot of hope out there for a kid like this. You can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you've never had any boots. Worst of all, you know that there are more than just these three kids out there. ♦


Rich Hill
Rated NR · 91 minutes · 2014
Director: Andrew Palermo and Tracy Tragos
Producer: Andrew Palermo, Tracy Tragos, David Armillei and Robert Compton

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