“Rich Hill” might fairly be called “Boyhood: The Documentary,” and, not surprisingly, it offers a reality harsher than — if just as compassionate as — Richard Linklater’s dreamy time-lapse drama. Set in and around the tiny Missouri town of the title (pop. 1,400, give or take), the film picks three random boys from the pigpile of impoverished, at-risk youth and follows them for a few years, fretting at their chances. It doesn’t sound like much, but co-directors and cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo have chosen their subjects well. A Grand Jury Prize winner at this year’s Sundance, “Rich Hill” has the power to bring you to tears more than once.
At its best, the movie asks us to question our first impressions and unexamined class prejudices. One of the boys, 15-year-old Harley, is subject to violent rages; he has a mother in jail and a disturbing passion for knives. Just when you’re ready to write the kid off as an asocial creep, the filmmakers follow him out on a Halloween jaunt — dressed as a member of the horrorcore rap group Insane Clown Posse — during which Harley reveals aspects of his past that fundamentally change our perspective. It’s a subtly bravura sequence: He goes out the door a budding thug and comes home a broken child, and the only difference is what he and the filmmakers have told us about him.
By contrast, Andrew, 14, looks at the lousy hand fate has dealt him with stoic, moving optimism. Crucially, he’s the only one of the three subjects with a father still in the picture, but that father is a feckless, if loving, misfit who’d rather be a Hank Williams Sr. impersonator than hold down a steady job to support his family. Andrew’s family moves around a lot — to rental homes, to relatives’ bedrooms — and he settles into each new school hoping it will be permanent. “Rich Hill” traces the boy’s emotional maturing, fighting disillusionment every step of the way. “This is what goes through my mind: God has to be busy with everyone else,” Andrew says. “Eventually he’ll come into my life. I hope it happens. It’s gonna break my heart if it don’t.”
The film’s most distressing scenes belong to Appachey, a hulking 13-year-old whose obvious intelligence seems in danger of being crushed by waves of adolescent hostility. Raised by an exhausted single mother, Appachey has an alphabet soup of clinical diagnoses — ADHD, OCD, maybe Asperger’s — and not much interest in medicating them. He’d rather head out under the highways with his skateboard and a pack of cigarettes. There’s a creative intelligence in there — when he’s not cussing, Appachey can be the most eloquent of the three boys — but we watch it founder into rebellion and unfocused fury. With no one paying attention, the kid seems intent on seething his way into the juvenile justice system.
What makes Appachey an apparent statistic while Andrew seems poised to be a survivor? (Unless it turns out the other way around.) Is Harley a victim, a bully, or just a confused kid? “Rich Hill” doesn’t analyze or point to conclusions; the only agenda is reminding us that these boys exist — and millions like them and their sisters. When the film errs, it’s on the side of lyricism, with artfully composed camera shots, slow-motion passages, and a score by Nathan Halpern that sounds like early-ambient Brian Eno (not a bad thing). Such devices evoke a mood of bruised vulnerability that more than once feels needlessly pretty. The filmmakers don’t have to pull our strings to make us feel for these lost boys. Watching them get yanked around by the world is poignant enough.