The Fourth of July fireworks display that caps off the poor-kids-in-the-heartland documentary Rich Hill can be viewed in a couple of ways. You can see the young’uns staring open-mouthed at the pretty explosions while chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” sound in the background and think, Brutal. How can folks cheer for a country so full of misery and failure? How can folks bid three grand at a pie auction when there’s a boy down the street taking a bath in water heated on an inverted clothes iron? Or you can dig past that reaction and marvel that these kids, these victims of crime and circumstance and their own frustrated choices, are at the display at all. The film is full of such moments: one moment, you’re wincing at a teenager’s tortured syntax and blunted thinking; the next, you’re shaking your head in sympathy.
Rich Hill follows three protagonists: Andrew has had to move somewhere around 20 times; he figures God is busy with other people at the moment, but he keeps his chin up and his body hard. Harley’s mom is in prison for especially heartbreaking reasons. And Appachey is a doughy ball of medicated rage who could probably use a father. The film isn’t going for any kind of grand, inclusive statement: all three subjects are white males. Rather, it aims at unblinking observation and intimate access, to powerful effect. Whatever glimmers of hope you detect in that brilliant night sky at the story’s end have been hard won and well earned.