STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

"Rich Hill" is the most watchable movie I've seen about poverty

Andrew Droz Palermo

We don't do a lot of movie reviews at State of Opportunity. In fact, we've only ever done one.

What makes the documentary Rich Hill worth watching is also what makes it rare and worth talking or writing about.

It is raw and not sentimental, but neither is it hopeless. The film won the top documentary prize at Sundance this year.

It's a needed break from the familiar poverty documentary format. This film has no statistics, no talking heads, no voiceover about policies. The focus of this movie is squarely on its three teenage subjects, and they are mesmerizing. 

Rich Hill follows three teenage boys in that rural Missouri town as they do their best to grow up with very limited resources. Money is a big part of the problem for Andrew, Appachey, and Harley, but it is the depravation of emotional, educational and health resources on top of poverty that seem to make their situations so difficult to scramble out of.

It's this nuanced portrait that makes the film thought provoking.

Director Tracy Droz Tragos spent childhood summers in Rich Hill with her grandparents. This intimacy with the town comes through, as does a desire to portray these hometown families without judgment.

Honey Boo Boo this is not. 

That's not to say folks looking to judge these boys' parents won't find plenty to rail against. There are chaotic and messy houses. There is ineffective discipline and under-managed mental health issues galore. Perhaps most shocking to those of us who have grown up in the age of anti-tobacco litigation is that both 15 year-old Harley and 12 year-old Appachey are heavy smokers, and neither of them hide it from their families. 

It's worth noting that Rich Hill could be mistaken for hundreds of small towns in Michigan.

But is is difficult to demonize any of the parents in the movie and almost impossible to dismiss their kids.

Andrew, for example, is a marvel of resiliency. He has a gap-toothed smile and pervasive sweetness even as he works relentlessly to beef up his adolescent body. His relentless optimism about his life is heart-wrenching, because it seems so out of place.

Similarly, it's tragic to watch how clearly lonely Appachey is, and how his behavior gets him  sent off to juvenile detention without having lost his baby fat or gotten into 7th grade.

Harley, for his part, also struggles with anger management problems that I found nothing if not completely understandable. In the hour and a half it takes to watch the film it's clear none of these kids is one dimensional. At the same time you get the sense neither they nor the people around them think they have many abilities to develop. 

It's worth noting that Rich Hill could be mistaken for hundreds of small towns in Michigan. The poverty rate in that town is about 26%, lower than a lot of places we've visited as part of this project and about the same as Michigan's childhood poverty rate.

One reason I loved this movie, however, was that I had to look that rate up on my own, as the film doesn't focus on anything except the lives of the three boys at it's heart. 

Rich Hill is being in a limited amount of theaters now. It's also available On Demand, I-Tunes and Amazon. Tracy Droz and one of the boys featured in the film, Andrew Jewell spoke a few weeks ago on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show if you want to hear more.