Andrew, Harley and Appachey are three teenage boys growing up in Rich Hill, Missouri. The abandoned mining town (with a population of 1,400) has a lofty name that is also ironic. Its citizens are poor and broken, living from paycheque to paycheque. Andrew wills to get out of town but he has to take care of his sick mother. Harley has a short temper, and walks around aimlessly, thinking about his incarcerated mom. Appachey is a tough, chubby kid who does not fit in and take his anger out on his classmates. These sad, neglectful boys try to imagine a better life, although it is far from their reach.

One could label Rich Hill as “poverty porn,” a documentary that simply exposes the squalid lives of hopeless country folk. That would be harsh and inaccurate. The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, is a poignant snapshot of lower-class America.

Directors Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo get these starved teens (and some of their families) to open up on camera. With a fly-on-the-wall approach, we observe the strain these poor families go through to make ends meet. Their homes are small and messy. The town is empty, with little for these kids to do. When the Fourth of July comes around, there are fireworks, but little else makes these kids wide-eyed. This is a town where a man covering Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” receives a mournful chorus from the crowd. They know the same feelings. (Nathan Halpern’s airy yet solemn score, mixed with the spare, beautiful images of the town, makes Rich Hill feel like a Terrence Malick film.)

The interviews with the boys are also moving and unflinching. The teens reflect on the shame of being poor or the frustration of being social outcasts, with a perception of someone twice their age. “People walk past us with their nose 50 miles in the air,” Andrew says near the start. “We’re not trash. We’re good people.” The trio talk about the dreams they have – or rather, the hopes they have that will likely go unrealized – with a downcast spirit. You grow to love these boys, but you also pity them. The family relationships in Rich Hill are profound in a way you rarely see in cinema: we see moms and dads struggling, trying to prepare their kids for an equally unfulfilled life.

Is Rich Hill opening weekend worthy?

Yes. Rich Hill is deserving of its Sundance prize. It is an honest, poignant document of what it means to be young but hopeless in small-town America.

Rich Hill opens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Friday, August 22, 2014.

For tickets and showtimes, please visit the Bloor Cinema website.

Rich Hill trailer

Rich Hill gallery