Life in the Midwest rustbelt is often portrayed in movies, but rarely with the authenticity displayed in Holler, the first feature film from writer-director Nicole Riegel. These are hard-working folks who maintain hope and keep pushing through the challenges brought on by the collapse of the factory world that left generations in its wake. It’s a spinoff of Ms. Riegel’s own 2015 short film of the same name, and the story is inspired by her own upbringing in Ohio.
Jessica Barden stars as Ruth, a very bright high school senior who is struggling along with her dropout older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) to make ends meet while mom (Pamela Adlon, the voice of Bobby on “King of the Hill”) is in jail due to opioids. Dad is out of the picture. As smart as she is, Ruth is teetering on the line of graduation since she misses so much school time while hustling the streets with her brother looking for aluminum cans to redeem, or any other way to make a few bucks. Despite their lack of funds, Blaze submitted a college application for Ruth without her knowing, and now that she’s been accepted, money becomes the focus.
Desperation leads to poor decisions, and soon Ruth and Blaze are working for Hark (Austin Amelio, “The Walking Dead”) the owner of a local metal scrap yard. At night, brother and sister join the crew for illegal scrapping at closed factories. It’s dangerous work, but the pay is good. The dynamic between older brother Blaze and younger sister Ruth is interesting. He realizes his future looks something like what he’s doing now – scratching and clawing for everything. But he sees that Ruth has a path to a brighter future and he strives to keep her focused on that.
Family is key here, and Ruth struggles with how best to deal with her mother. It takes Aunt Linda (Becky Ann Baker, A Simple Plan, 1998) to explain how Ruth’s mother is a victim of the medical profession over-prescribing the pain killers that caused the downfall. In a town that’s slowly dying (plants closing), and folks fighting to stay out of poverty, this situation is all too common.
Jessica Barden is memorable from her turn as the friend in Hanna (2011) and from The End of the F…ing World (2017), but this could be a star-making role for her. She is outstanding in much the way Jennifer Lawrence was in Winter’s Bone (2010), although this movie isn’t quite at that level. It’s a star turn for Ms. Barden and an impressive debut for director Riegel, who shot in 16mm film – a rarity for indie films. The story and characters are never quite as bleak as we expect, though the ending is a bit too predictable…and we are happy for it. You might want to see this one if for no other reason than it’s a likely career turning point for both Jessica Barden and Nicole Riegel.