Born of a Small Town: Droz Tragos & Droz Palermo Regard Three Boys Living With Ingrained Poverty and Troubled Pedigree
With increasing frequency, documentary filmmakers are examining the developing lives of youngsters, observing the rapid transformation of their bodies and their transitioning self images in reciprocating unrest, their puberty ridden psyches an emotional microcosm often illuminating the family and communities in which they’re raised. Some indulge juvenile subversion like 12 O’Clock Boys, some investigate race relations as in American Promise, some observe the fragile state of growing relationships like Young Ones, some conjure the spirit of youthful wonder à la Tchoupitoulas, and some document the naive resilience of young minds stuck in dire situations as co-directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo have with their visually sumptuous collaboration, Rich Hill. Following a trio of teenage boys who’ve inherited the heartbreak of poverty and domestic disputes, the film calls to mind the rural despondency of Bombay Beach without looking any deeper or grasping any further conclusion from the void that often is small town America.
Only 1,393 inhabitants call Rich Hill, Missouri home, many of whom struggle to maintain the basics for subsistence. Of the paltry population of young souls floating amongst the town, Harley, Andrew and Appachey are those that have cinematically surfaced within. The oldest of the bunch, at 15, Harley lives with his grandmother because his mother has long been incarcerated for proactively defensive crimes against his abusive step-father. Heavily medicated, he’s prone to outbursts of anger and has almost no patience for the effusive structure of school. Like Harley, Appachey, only 13, has similar issues of disciplinary intolerance, acting out at nearly every opportunity, but his behaviour stems from a need for attention rather than abuse, his house overrun with the chaos of siblings and destitution. In rare moments of childhood innocence, he’s likely to share his interest in skateboarding, graffiti, or even poetry, but he can’t seem to shake his mischievousness. At the opposite spectrum, 14 year old Andrew is a golden boy trapped in constant migration, his family continuously on the move after running out of cash for rent. Like his father, Andrew dreams big, but the odd jobs his dad works never seem to maintain the roof over their heads, yet the kid plays on the football team, lifts weights and claims with pride that his loving family is not poor.
These teens are rendered in a strikingly shot, shallow depth of field, constantly shifting in and out of focus, just as they themselves are grasping recklessly for something solid in which they can find some form of stability. Each family is intimately displayed with heedless exposure, the dark stories behind their desperation candidly divulged in conversation with kids and parents alike. Their willingness to share with Droz Palermo, Droz Tragos and their camera never seems exploitatively teased out, yet it sometimes feels like they’re unwittingly being duped into becoming cultural caricatures, their tragic stories conjuring compassion through pity rather than empathy. A radiant observational piece in the midst of Sundance’s politically swamped docu line-up, it’s clear that Rich Hill’s intention was to call attention to the modest under served communities like the titled town and countless comparables, but this all too brief encounter leaves us with little hope and less insight on the future of these three teens battling more with poverty than puberty.
Reviewed on January 26th at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival – U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION Programme. 91 Min