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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Rich Hill" and the mythological middle class of everyone

Netflix has a couple of watchable new films available*, among them "Rich Hill," a documentary following three poor boys in a rural Missouri town for a year. Although the subjects may not think themselves poor, it seemed clear that the viewers were supposed to think them so. The film has no particular argument to make about the boys' lives; they're just depicted, and some of them are better than others. But afterwards, when I looked up reviews, I discovered that although most people saw that clearly, a number seemed to think that the boys were intended to symbolize "an American story of the struggle to stay in the middle class, and how money changes the dynamics of families, making childhood a fleeting commodity."

Now, I know that everyone in America is middle-class if you ask them, and even that this is a kind of useful unifying national ideology since, when it works, it restrains the excesses of the rich and the poor. But it's hard to watch this movie and think that any of these boys or their families are in even the "lower" middle class. One boy lives with his grandmother, who is on food stamps and seems to be housing many of his cousins as well, because his mother is in prison. Another lives with his mother and at least five siblings on his mother's Pizza Hut wages. The third lives with both parents and a sister, but his mother appears to be addicted to sleeping pills and his father won't take a regular job and prefers to make his living as a itinerant handyman. Even in some halcyon time in the past when the middle class was bigger, or middle class wages were available to those without college or even high school degrees, these are not circumstances conducive to middle-class status since they are not conducive to steady income. These boys are not "struggling to stay in the middle class"; they are simply poor. (The rest of that sentence applies as little to the movie as this part of it, but maybe the reviewer is English and assumes that America is such a wretched place that it's typically middle-class to lack hot water.)

What is quite striking in the movie and not noted in the reviews, at least not in these terms, is that the boy who seems to be the least damaged (in fact, he seems to have quite an admirable character) and to have the best prospects is the one who is, in strictly material terms, the poorest of the three.

*The other good new Netflix movie is "In Bloom," a Georgian coming of age story which was I think the first time I ever heard Georgian spoken. I thought it would sound at least vaguely like Russian, but no, not at all.