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Sundance: Grand Jury Prize-Winning 'Rich Hill' Points a Lens at Three Resilient Heartland Teens

Rich Hill Sundance Film Still - H 2014

Set in a depressed Midwestern town, the cinematic doc captivated audiences and jurists alike.

The story of Rich Hill, Missouri, is emblematic of what’s happened to many small Midwestern towns. As the coal industry disappeared, so did the idyllic town center and employment opportunities. It’s a change that Rich Hill co-director Tracy Droz Tragos watched unfold while regularly visiting her grandparents there after her father was killed in Vietnam (her journey to know her father was the subject of her Emmy-winning Be Good, Smile Pretty). It was natural, then, that when she and her younger cousin, Andrew Droz Palermo, were looking for a project to collaborate on, that they would gravitate to their parents’ hometown. Their instincts couldn't have been better: The film took the Grand Jury prize in the U.S. documentary competition.

Interestingly, though, neither the filmmakers' connection to the town nor an explanation of why the town has fallen on hard times are even mentioned in the film. Rich Hill presents intimate and unfiltered portraits of how the American dream lives inside three resilient teenagers whose upbringing has failed to supply them with a path to reach those dreams. The result is that the film avoids many of the traps that others fall into when tackling the issue of poverty. It's not another hipster indie romanticizing the poor, nor is it a social-action documentary contextualizing its subjects’ lives with ivory-tower analysis. Instead, it's a throwback to cinema verite docs of the pre-Ken Burns era, with a narrative structure and visual style more akin to the Sundance films in dramatic competition.

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“The goal was to make as cinematic and immersive an experience as possible,” Tragos tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Documentaries ask you to do a lot of thinking, and that's very important, but for this film it really was more about feeling, and there might be some thinking that comes from that.” 

In preparing to shoot Rich Hill, the filmmakers watched narrative movies like Ken Loach’s Kes and Lance Hammer’s Ballast as they discussed what would be their approach to shooting their subjects. The goal was to find a shooting style that would bring the audience close to the boys, so that they have as emotional and immersive an experience as possible while watching the film. 

“From the very beginning, we made choices to support that experience,” Tragos explains. “That was an important touchpoint for our collaboration -- to treat this in as cinematic a way as possible, and that included taking the big gulp and saying, 'OK, we're going to shoot on a Red [camera].' Andrew shot our subjects as heroes and often worked without a tripod to follow the action as fluidly as possible. That was also how we chose to edit [via editor Jim Hession] and score [with composer Nathan Halpern] -- every step of the way we asked, 'How do make this as cinematic and immersive experience as possible?' ”

A key component to achieving that goal was drawing upon Palermo's narrative film background. One of Filmmaker magazines’ 25 New Faces of Independent Film, Palermo is set to make his narrative-feature directorial debut this summer with One & Two. But it was his work as a cinematographer on horror films like You’re Next (2011) and Sundance films like A Teacher (2013) that most informed Rich Hill’s look.

Sundance Review:  Rich Hill

“I often don't like how documentaries look,” Palermo says. “They have to cut some corners, and I realize it's about costs. Having been on some narrative films, I've had the opportunity to use some bells and whistles and start building some language of my own. I really wanted to bring that into a documentary and start to perhaps blur the line between what separates a documentary from a narrative film.”

But the cousins’ collaboration was more than the sum of their different skill sets and professional experiences. "I think for Andrew and me, our different life experiences and perspectives were really vital to make the film we made,” Tragos reflects. "I have friends who have collaborating partners, and they're very similar people -- and in some ways that's great, because you can bounce ideas off each other and you're coming from a similar perspective and speak really with one voice. Andrew and I, though, brought very different but complementary skills: I'm a woman, he's a man; I'm a mother, he's more a young kid. We had a different relationship with the boys and their mothers as a result. There is no way either of us could have made Rich Hill on our own.”