A remarkably intimate and artistic portrait on film

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by Eric Ginsburg

For several years, filmmakers and cousins Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos were among the most consistent things in the lives of Andrew, Harley and Appachey.

Palermo grew up about two hours away from where the three boys lived — Rich Hill, Mo. a town of fewer than 1,500 residents that has long been scarred by intergenerational poverty. His grandparents lived there, and his aunt and uncle still do, which gave him and Tragos the idea for a documentary film and access to the town’s residents.

The duo would fly to Rich Hill every month over the course of a few years beginning in 2011, he told a capacity crowd at a screening of Rich Hill at A/perture Cinema last weekend. In their time following the three teenage boys, they captured incredibly powerful and raw footage and created one of the most beautiful and intimate films imaginable.

In many ways Rich Hill is a story of three struggling, introspective boys experiencing the death of middle America firsthand. It is a rare look deep into the core of the cycle of poverty and focuses on a segment of the population that makes up a significant portion of poor America that is often overlooked: rural, white families.

From the jump, the desolation and lack of hope is obvious. In the first few minutes of the film, Appachey comes home angry, lights a cigarette with a toaster and explains how his father left in the middle of the night. The two other boys aren’t doing much better.

“People around town, they walk towards us or walk past us with their nose 50 miles in the air like their s*** don’t stink, and acting like they’re better than us,” Andrew says at the outset. “And I don’t fall for that. We’re not trash. We’re good people.”

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Harley

Harley lays out how he struggles with anger management, and after a shot of Appachey pacing his front yard barefoot between piles of trash, he says, “I don’t even know what to do anymore.”

In addition to being profoundly open and introspective, the boys demonstrate remarkable resilience and aspirations amid the despair. And despite the clear signs that locate their challenges in small-town America, it was impossible to shake the feeling that Rich Hill could’ve been filmed mere miles away.

Even in the opening scenes, several shots triggered memories of a street dotted with trailers in High Point. A friend said the kids reminded her of struggling boys she grew up with in Greensboro, and Forsyth school board member Elisabeth Motsinger remarked during a Q&A with Palermo that the same stories exist in Winston-Salem.

Andrew, one of the boys in the film
Andrew, one of the boys in the film

The two most remarkable aspects of Tragos and Palermo’s work is their ability to create holistic portraits of the three boys that serves as a microcosm for their families, town and country that is also fascinatingly artistic. Without romanticizing poverty, the family love and tenacity of the film’s characters blossoms on screen between evocative imagery and consistent, intentionally slow pacing.

It makes sense that Palermo doesn’t pigeonhole himself as a documentary filmmaker, and actually just wrapped up shooting a narrative feature in Winston-Salem. Using high-quality equipment to capture crisp audio and sharp images, interspersed with poetic shots in the families’ homes and town, Rich Hill defies traditional boundaries of the genre to elicit even more powerful emotions. A circling carnival ride and washer provide metaphoric imagery of the boys’ trapped cycles with things like getting trouble at school, constantly moving and economic fragility.

It isn’t surprising that Rich Hill won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, or that Palermo said he has screened something at Sundance for the last three years running. The filmmaking is spectacular and Rich Hill reverberated for days after seeing it. And for the most part, the two cousins ran all the cameras and sound themselves, getting some help with editing and the soundtrack.

At one point Palermo and Tragos were following five families before narrowing in on the three unrelated boys. While their seemingly endless spread of obstacles overlaps, the boys don’t directly intersect in the film, never appearing together.

It is apparent that Harley, Appachey and Andrew greatly appreciated the stability of the small film crew and the outlet it provided. As Harley walks home from trick-or-treating, after musing that maybe he’s too old to participate anymore, he switches to divulging some of the more gut-wrenching hardships he’s experienced.

Rich Hill has its inspiring moments too, as well as an appropriate dose of comedy.

“I’m a demented little kid,” Harley says at one point. “Well, not little ‘cause I got a big stomach, but I’m not huge.”

Rich Hill is showing at A/perture Cinema this Wednesday and Thursday at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.