It is difficult to watch the penetrating documentary Rich Hill without imposing your own values and prejudices. I did. Watching the case-studies of three impoverished Missouri male adolescents, my despair over the degeneration of life in small-town America led to a constant inner dialogue with the film and its subjects: Why, child, I asked, are they giving you so many meds? Why the hell are you chain-smoking at age 13? Why did your parents bring you into the world when they were so young and so evidently unable (or unwilling) to care for you? What can you do in such a bleak place to keep your mind from turning to mush?
Directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos have chosen their young (white) subjects from among a population of 1,396: two problem boys and one who’s more “normal,” more primed to escape his world — except his mother has fled and his dad can’t hold a job. I feel as if I’m racking up sociological points, but here goes. Almost everyone drinks Big Gulps (ex-Mayor Bloomberg’s nightmare), smokes, and eats junk food. One 13-year-old has been diagnosed with ADHD, bipolar disorder, OCD, and possibly Asperger's syndrome. One mother is heavily medicated and can’t bring herself to get out of bed. Another mother is in prison for a serious attack on her son's stepfather, who sexually molested him (there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges against the stepfather); her son is skipping school and the meds that are supposed to control his anger problem don’t.
The above recitation can seem, if you deaden your heart, almost comical, but there is nothing glancing, glib, or dispassionate about the directors’ touch. Every shot, every second among these people — even at their most unattractive — makes you feel for them and loathe the world in which they’re enmeshed. The mother who says, “I never got to have dreams or ideals about my life … I didn’t get any time … I went straight from 17 to being an adult with a kid,” is too complicated and sad to pass judgment on, however inclined you might be. When her uncontrollable son finally goes into a disciplinary facility, she hugs him so tightly you blink back tears. And then she says to the camera, “I love him with all my heart and I need a break,” and that’s understandable, too.
Rich Hill (the directors didn’t make up that name) has lyrical passages that might feel too easy if the film didn’t have so many hard, un-lyrical details. Fireworks erupt and children run and somersault, the camera traveling along with them — a glimpse of a higher world, a world of possibilities. But what are those possibilities? A father speaks longingly of earning enough to take his kids somewhere special one day: Walmart or the Dollar Store.
There is one omission — obviously deliberate — that brought me up short. Palermo and Tragos have left their subjects’ politics out of the film. Do these people have a sense of what has happened to the larger economy (and culture) that has led to the conditions in which they live? Do they blame the government, immigrants, urban welfare cheats, bankers, capitalism, socialism — anything or anyone? Or do politics simply not factor into their thinking? Perhaps the directors wanted to forestall partisan judgments. But politics do factor in my — and, I presume, your — thinking. This vital documentary gives you a world of hurt, prescribes nothing, and calls the ultimate questions you can ask as an American.