The subjects of Rich Hill live on the far side of the state from Ferguson, but this documentary shows there are many different types of trouble in contemporary Missouri. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, the movie spends a year following three teenage white boys growing up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks.
“We’re not trash, we’re good people,” says 14-year-old Andrew, the sunniest of the three kids in focus. He lives with his beloved twin sister and their mom, a woman with unexplained medical/cognitive problems, and a dad who works odd jobs wherever he can get them. Andrew’s father also performs as a Hank Williams tribute singer when he can — not a lucrative gig. They’re a relatively happy clan. Problem is, trying to make ends meet, they’re always moving from one town to the next; they’ve already lived at multiple houses in Rich Hill.
Appachey, 13, is a chubby, sullen kid who loves to ride his skateboard, not very well, and curse with a vigor that would earn this unrated film an R within his first minute onscreen. He lives with multiple siblings in a filthy house only a hoarder could love. Their single mom operates with tough love (and a similarly foul mouth), and she seems both defeated but clear-eyed about her challenges and choices. “I never got to have any dreams or ideals in my life,” she says, recalling her instant transition from daughter to mother herself at age 17. “Sometimes, I wish I would’ve had time to grow up a little more.”
Harley, 15, is in the process of trying to grow up himself, but he’s on a remedial track. Coming across as intellectually and emotionally challenged, he lives with his grandma and admits to having a hair-trigger temper. Eventually, that becomes easy to understand when the filmmakers visit Harley’s mom, in prison for trying to avenge a crime against her son that may have marked him for life.
The directors of Rich Hill eschew voiceover narration and don’t try to score editorial or sociological points. They don’t have to. Quietly engrossing in its uninflected, fly-on-the-wall way, it’s a fascinating portrait of people making do and trying to keep their spirits up in the face of tough breaks. Given the growing awareness of the economic gap between the wealthy minority in our country and most of the rest of us, Rich Hill is a very timely film.
So is Alive Inside. It’s a movie I can’t pretend to write about with complete objectivity, since I have a family member deep in the confusion of dementia — and so do an increasing number of my friends. With Baby Boomers aging en masse, this is an issue that won’t be going away.
Also a Sundance winner, for the Documentary Audience Award, the film centers on social worker Dan Cohen. Founder of the nonprofit Music & Memory, he decided to try different ways to reach Alzheimer’s and dementia patients on the distant shore where their disease has taken them. Music — especially music that may have been important in the younger lives of the elder residents he works with — has an amazing, immediate effect.
After a 90-year-old woman sweetly apologizes for her spongy memory — “I forgot what I used to do after I became a young lady” — Cohen puts headphones over her ears and plays some Louis Armstrong. Not only does she remember the musician’s name, suddenly other information spills out: the jobs she used to have, her son’s name, even his birthdate. Repeatedly, we see people who barely seem a breath shy of comatose crackle awake with joy and clarity at the sound of beloved songs. The music’s power is known as “the quickening effect,” says renowned neurosurgeon Oliver Sacks, an insightful talking head in the film. Sacks, as you may remember, inspired the Robin Williams character in Awakenings, and he also used music to reach unresponsive patients.
If Rich Hill contains tacit criticism of the economic and educational failings that leave many families stranded and struggling, Alive Inside takes a more pointed tone of advocacy. It shows the bureaucratic, pharmaceutical, institutional fog that engulfs our countries elders as effectively as fractured memory — again, a problem that’s not going away.
Alive Inside makes it clear that there’s no reversal in sight for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. But it suggests that something as simple as music can, at least for a few minutes, build a makeshift bridge to let its sufferers revisit the world they once lived in.
Rich Hill. A documentary directed by Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos. 91 minutes. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Alive Inside. A documentary by Michael Rossato-Bennett. 78 minutes. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.