The city of Rich Hill, Missouri, boasts a population of just 1,400 people — three of whom are about to become more familiar to fans of U.S. documentaries. The movie titled Rich Hill, told from the point of view of three teenage boys struggling to get by despite financial and personal tumult in their lives, took the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It opens Friday in New York, St. Louis and Kansas City, before being available on demand.
Opening an art-house doc in KC ahead of bigger markets such as San Francisco is unusual, but co-director Tracy Droz Tragos says the Missouri-shot film itself is nothing if not unconventional.
"We've taken a more lyrical approach,” she tells The Pitch by phone from California. “We've had these kids tell their stories. We don't have a lot of statistics. We don't have talking heads that give a context for it. It's a more quiet film. It's a bit of a slow burn."
Tragos shares directing credit with her first cousin, Andrew Droz Palermo, who handled most of the photography while she conducted the interviews. "He can listen while he shoots, which is rare," she says. Both have ties to the city, 80 miles south of KC on U.S. Highway 71.
"It's where my father grew up,” Tragos says. “It's where his [Andrew Droz Palermo's] mother grew up. My father was killed, when I was very young, in Vietnam. Growing up, my mother was a working mom. She'd send me to Rich Hill to be with my grandparents, so I would spend every summer and winter break in Rich Hill, and it was a place that I just loved being."
That doesn’t mean it was — or is today — an easy place to be.
"It used to be a coal-mining town, and shortly after World War II, the coal went dry, little by little,” Tragos says. “It wasn't dramatic, like a factory closed and moved out of town. There's work at the school. There are businesses here and there, a gas station, a grocery store, a Dollar General. When jobs become available, there are lots of people applying, not everybody has a résumé. It's hard, and if you don't have transportation or money for gas, you can't really imagine working outside of Rich Hill, either.”
The three boys featured in the film — Andrew Jewell, Appachey West and Harley Hood — belong to families who have to be creative whenever cash is called for. Jewell, who was 13 when Rich Hill was shot and is now 15, recalls how his family got by without a water heater or a stove.
"We had an iron, and we tipped it upside down in a pan, and we used that to heat water,” he says with a laugh. “That method was to heat water or make tea, but other than that, we did OK. We’d all try to pitch in, and we’d all try to work together as a family to provide for each other. I’d say the biggest part of why my family stuck together and stayed the way we were was because we worked together.”
He adds, "I’m not saying that we ever went hungry. My dad always made sure we had food on the table. Whether we could go out and make money or not, he’d always make sure we always had something to eat, even if he had to go without food."
While Jewell's family frequently moved to find work, they were in many ways luckier than the other families depicted in the film. West's mother raises him and his siblings on her own, and Hood lives with his grandmother because his mother is in prison.
"All the parents became parents when they were teenagers, so they were kids themselves. The kids are kind of parenting themselves," Tragos says.
In the film and over the phone, Jewell manages to be upbeat about his misfortunes, including the death of his mother shortly before the film made its Sundance debut. "She lived in constant pain, and none of the doctors were able to provide the right amount of medication or the right source of medication for her problems,” he says. “God healed her permanently. I think it’s incredible that she’s with the Lord.”
Hood and West struggle with mental-health issues that are difficult to treat in a community the size of Rich Hill. "Harley, to get his medication adjusted, somebody from Kansas City had to drive down [to pick him up], so it's about an hour and a half to drive him half an hour away to Butler, where he could talk to a doctor on a television screen,” Tragos says. “The doctor's based in St. Louis. For what Harley's been through, it's not a warm and fuzzy way to talk with anybody.”
The film has brought the three boys together, though they knew one another before Tragos arrived."Harley and I, before the film, were always in a constant feud because both of us acted like the tough guy because we both had things in our past and we didn’t know each other’s stories,” Jewell says. “Appachey and I were friends, but we weren’t the best of friends. After watching the film and watching each other’s lives, we all grew very fond of each other. We care about each other almost as if we were brothers."
Tragos and Jewell both say the film doesn’t dwell on pain or misfortune. And Palermo’s photography finds beauty in images, such as Appachey's cracking ice over a puddle with his skateboard. There are moments in Rich Hill that wouldn’t look out of place in a Terrence Malick picture.
"Sometimes it's hard to convince my husband, or someone else who doesn't have the ties there, to go there,” Tragos says. “What he sees is the poverty and that side of things, so for me, in part, it [making the movie] was to say, ‘There is beauty here. There's something special here, and there are wonderful people here, but there's another side that you need to see as well.' We need to shine a light on these families who are struggling."
Jewell hopes that his story and that of his co-stars resonates well beyond Missouri.
"It was a little awkward at first, but I soon grew to understand, maybe the things I have to show and the things I have to say may help somebody else in a way or allow others an understanding of why we are the way we are," he says. "The devil and life itself are going to throw obstacles in your path, and you’ve just got to look forward to a brighter future and look forward to the blessings that will come your way."