The rural poverty of Rich Hill, Missouri and the urban blight of Baltimore, Maryland seem like worlds away from each other. But Rich Hill, the recent winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2014, and 12 O’Clock Boys, a festival favorite that’s opening in theaters this Friday, have some striking similarities. Not only do both films focus on teenage boys—who are poor, aimless and reckless—but the filmmakers’ stylistic approaches are also analogous, as they attempt to ride a delicate line between romanticizing and understanding the lives of disenfranchised young Americans.
Beautifully photographed by Missouri-born cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, and co-directed with his cousin Tracy Droz Tragos, the ironically titled Rich Hill follows three teenaged boys struggling to cope with economic and familial strife. Andrew, a handsome God-fearing all-American type, must adapt to his family’s constant relocations; Appachey, a foul-mouthed pudgy chain-smoker, suffers from bi-polar disorder, ADHD, and ODD, according to his mother, and Harley, a traumatized kid, alternatingly angry and lighthearted, who appears to be on the autism spectrum.
The film deftly captures the details of their poverty: Appachey lives in total squalor, surrounded by piles of junk and clothes, while Andrew’s dad boils water on the back of a hot iron, presumably because their gas has been shut off. But the film also tries to elevate their lives, finding the beauty in those banal moments of Americana: kids cartwheeling on the green grass, boys running a footrace, and the naïve splendor of fireworks—which appear not just once, but twice in the film. Palermo shoots these scenes with Malickian wonder, which are punctuated by the nostalgic strains of Nathan Halpern’s elegiac score.
But there’s something dubious about this kind of beauty. While it is meant to uplift, or at the very least, show a positive side to their experience, it’s also a bit disingenuous, because there’s little that’s actually picturesque about these people’s lives. The more lush the representation, the more the film risks obfuscating their painful realities. Does the munificence of another sparkle in the sky really reflect Andrew’s feelings of displacement or Harley’s harrowing past? Or are the fireworks there just for the audience to contemplate, more than the boys?
Docutopia had a similar complaint—disputed by many—about the films Tchoupitoulas and Only The Young. Like those films, Rich Hill laudably favors experience over exposition, but it also doesn’t adequately penetrate the troubling circumstance it presents. Appachey, in particular, is a very complex, troubled kid, who loves his mother but only briefly shows it. It’s never made clear what’s behind all of his furious words.
There is also the unsettling sense that these kids may be performing for the camera, be it Andrew’s bodily prowess, Appachey’s cursing, or Harley’s acting out. These are extremely fragile and delicate subjects, and while Palermo and Tragos show affection for them and clearly want the viewer to empathize with them, they’re also undoubtedly on display. This can be ethically dicey, particularly when the audience is likely to be watching them from a far more privileged position.
In Lotfy Nathan’s 12 O’ Clock Boys, the documentary’s star, Pug, a young black boy from Baltimore, is also on display, but that’s something he also seems to thrive on. A natural born performer, the pint-sized Pug dreams of joining the “12 O’ Clock Boys,” a motor-cross bike gang that pop wheelies (standing upright at 12 O’ Clock) and race at top speeds through Baltimore’s busy city streets. Coincidentally, like Appachey, Pug also likes turtles.
If the fireworks displays create a beautiful milieu for Rich Hill, 12 O’ Clock Boys aestheticizes the specific actions of its subjects, with gorgeous extreme-slow-motion shots of the bikers in mid-air, showing off their acrobatic skill. The colors of the bikes also pop off the screen. In one sequence, Nathan positions the camera on a bike, facing the rider—when he accelerates rapidly, you can feel the visceral thrill of the ride.
The movie also echoes the work of Terrence Malick, with Pug’s wispy voiceover (“They’re free… they can escape… ride”) and a lyrical choral soundtrack that elevates the bike riding to a level of transcendence. You have to hand it to Nathan: the film takes something that has been demonized in the media—the bike-riders are represented in juxtaposed news clips throughout the movie as raucous and unpleasant—and makes it a thing of beauty.
All the while, the film does acknowledge the dangers of what they’re doing, recounting incidents in which both bikers and innocent passersby have been killed. In one all-too-brief scene, Pug’s aunt confesses, on the brink of tears, “I just want you to slow down; you make my nerves bad.” There are also brief sequences that show the challenging economic conditions of Pug’s life, the travails of his single Mom, and the need to move towns to search for a better future (also depicted in Rich Hill). But 12 O’ Clock Boys, at 76 minutes, is a relatively brief ride, and one wonders if a longer movie could have more thoroughly captured Pug’s experience and the “12 O’ Clock” subculture. (There are references to it being a positive outlet for black males in Baltimore, but aside from a few remarks by some of the veteran riders, it’s hard to know how much this is justification and how much it’s true.)
Ultimately, 12 O’ Clock Boys ends on a highly observant note, with a final sequence that balances Pug’s youthful arrogance with the dire realities that he is likely to face in the future. Worry about Pug, the film suggests. Like Andrew, Appachey and Harley, there are troubling times for him ahead.
And yet, these impressively shot documentaries are more like short stories than novels. Yes, there are moments of poetry and sympathy, but there is a whole lot more going on. One can’t help but feel that the films are ultimately cursory—that their attractive aesthetic execution masks the fact that they don’t reach deeper into the lives of their characters and their environments. And with lives that are this complex—and so different from the more privileged position of the film’s assumed viewers—a more substantial exploration may be necessary.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.