The winner of this year's Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, Rich Hill examines the lives of three boys ages 13 to 15 living in the mined-out coal town of Rich Hill, Missouri (population 1,393). The kids have very different personalities, strengths and challenges, but each lives with the twin burdens of absent or barely functioning parents and deeply entrenched poverty. The parents of co-directors (and cousins) Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo hail from Rich Hill, and both filmmakers claim a deep connection to the former boom town, all of which helped them earn the trust of locals and gain rare access to private, often isolated lives.
Carefully constructed from 450 hours of footage, the 92-minute Rich Hill does an excellent job allowing these kids and their families to speak for themselves about their experiences. But it's not a portrait of abject misery. Cinematographer Palermo also manages to capture the beauty of the heartland and the universal joy of early childhood. It's an artful and often moving film free from judgment or preconception about other people's lives. Instead of editorializing directly, the filmmakers paint real-life portraits that quietly show why telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps can't address the depth and complexity of today's social ills. There just aren't a lot of bootstraps to be found in Rich Hill and thousands of other towns like it across America — especially for the kids.