‘Rich Hill’ is a wrenching visit to small-town Missouri: 3.5 stars

08/07/2014 8:00 AM

08/07/2014 1:00 PM

“God has to be busy with everyone else. Eventually, he will come into my life.”

Those words, spoken by 14-year-old Andrew, express the mix of helplessness and hopefulness characterizing the powerful documentary “Rich Hill,” which deservedly won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The Missouri town, about 70 miles south of Kansas City, will be familiar to many locals. Even if they haven’t been there, they’ve probably visited places just like it.

Filmmakers Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos are cousins with roots in Rich Hill, and they let the town’s citizens speak for themselves. In particular, they focus on three teenage boys, each of whom struggles with serious personal challenges.

At 15, Harley is on his way to flunking out of school, thanks to his habit of leaving every day due to “illness.” His mom is in prison for trying to kill the stepfather who molested him, so Harley has understandable anger issues. Using humor and medication, he tries to control his temper for the sake of the grandmother who has taken him in.

Depressed 13-year-old chain smoker Appachey is in even worse shape. With multiple behavioral problems and a chaotic home life, he can’t even find solace in skateboarding, the one thing that seems to interest him. His overwhelmed single mother is almost ready to give up.

Initially, these two are hard to love, especially when contrasted with the sweet-natured Andrew, whose resilient personality and relatively stable family offer a ray of light in all this darkness.

But Palermo and Tragos make it impossible to judge these kids or their parents. There is no glossing over of anyone’s failings — just a straightforward acknowledgment that this is how life has turned out. All that matters now is moving forward.

The intimacy of “Rich Hill” is almost uncomfortable, which isn’t a bad thing when it allows its subjects to reveal the depth of their humanity. But such an extreme close-up approach doesn’t allow room for a sense of history or community that might provide a context for the boys’ experiences. The closed downtown storefronts and halfhearted social events are more of a backdrop than a setting — it’s never even clear if the kids know each other, which is odd for a place with fewer than 1,400 residents.

It would be nice to see a series like the British “Seven Up,” which checked in on its subjects every seven years into adulthood. By the end of “Rich Hill,” it seems likely that Andrew, Harley and Appachey will make it, albeit with difficulty. A sympathetic ear (and camera) can be a big help when God is otherwise engaged.

(At the Glenwood Arts and Screenland Crown Center.)

‘RICH HILL’

3.5 stars

Not rated | Time: 1:31

MEET THE FILMMAKER

Director Tracy Droz Tragos, along with some of her “Rich Hill” subjects, will conduct a Q&A at the Screenland Crown Center after the screening at 6:30 p.m. Friday.

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