In his essay from the late 1940s entitled “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” literary theorist Lionel Trilling stated that “pleasure in cruelty is licensed by moral indignation,” and would go on to claim the middle class as the group of people where such a strange aesthetic relationship often takes hold, designating moral indignation as their “favorite emotion.” Rich Hill exists in this space. Detailing the lives of three separate, impoverished teen boys living in Rich Hill, Missouri, directors Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos allow their camera to probe and linger in spaces of disorder and grime, but without any discernible purpose other than gaining access to lower-class spaces—another popular pleasure created through middle-class distance. Rich Hill is poverty porn, examining lower-class spaces with pity as its operative mode and engendering little more than a means for viewers to leave the film acknowledging its sadness.
The film, which won the documentary Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, unsuccessfully attempts to transform its subjects’ circumstances into lyrical lament a la David Gordon Green or Terrence Malick. However, Palermo and Tragos don’t have an eye for it; beneath aimless tracking shots of dilapidated buildings and an indistinct, almost temp-track melancholic score, the boyhood struggles of Andrew, Appachey, and Harley remain at arms length, primarily because the filmmakers confuse access with insight. That access amounts to “boys-will-be-boys” moments of cursing out the TV while playing video games, applying far too much cologne, and sleeping in Playboy Bunny bed sheets, juxtaposed with more aggressive behavior, such as when Harley bluntly explains his thoughts on sexual violence: “I got strong feelings about rape; I’m against it,” and concludes by stating that he would like to murder rapists. It becomes clear that Palermo and Tragos include his views to set up a later revelation: that Harley was raped by his stepfather as a child.
Child rape is a questionable “payoff” in any film, but remains consistent with Palermo and Tragos’s undiscerning insistence of revealing the depths of sorrow afflicting these lives—or it reveals their banal manipulation tactics and cognizance of what will outrage the middle-class viewers bound to see their film. They also feature lines from their subjects like “It feels good to have the bills paid for once” or “Me and my mom used to listen to this song before she got locked up” with little more in mind than piling on the pitiful sorrow. Of course, an entire socioeconomic stratosphere exists outside these communities, but Rich Hill makes no mention of it; it’s too busy wandering in and out of its simplistic aesthetic register, juxtaposing fireworks with arm wrestling and any other number of forced metaphors (wilted leaves barely hanging to trees in the wind is perhaps the most risible). Missing is the joyful peculiarity found in Louis Malle’s God’s Country and the devastating ethnographic urgency of Martin Bell’s Streetwise. Near the beginning of the film, a train chugs through the small town. The far-reaching grasp of industrialized expansion may have arrived in Rich Hill, but purpose or insight into this dynamic have eluded Palermo and Tragos’s grasp.