The year 2020 should have kicked off a banner one for young actress Jessica Barden: At the SXSW Film Festival, she was set to surface in Nicole Riegel’s affecting blue collar drama “Holler” and the very different, though similarly well-made “Pink Skies Ahead.” Both movies feature Barden in leading roles that show off her big-time rage. The physical festival was canceled due to the pandemic, and both films were eventually pushed to 2021. Now, audiences can finally appreciate that Barden is doing excellent work and exhibiting a rare depth for her age.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Riegel (and inspired by her own coming-of-age in the Ohio Rust Belt and her earlier short film of the same name), “Holler” sets the “End of the F**king World” star as something of a Riegel surrogate: high school senior Ruth, sassy and brassy, smart and driven, and trapped by the circumstances of her life and family. The film calls to mind other movies about young strivers stuck in economically challenged American towns, from “Winter’s Bone” to “Hillbilly Elegy” (the film is set in Jackson, Ohio, technically part of the Appalachian section of the state). But while the broad strokes of Riegel’s story might sound familiar, “Holler” finds its power in the particularities, especially Barden’s unfussy and wholly believable performance.
Ruth and her older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) collect empty cans for money, though Blaze aspires to get a factory job like so many other people in their lives (early on, then-President Donald Trump comes over the radio to tout his plan to bring “jobs jobs jobs!” back to the area, but there’s little appealing about the lives of people who already have them). Ruth doesn’t dare dream for much, though when Blaze surreptitiously sends away a college application for her and it results in an acceptance letter, her world slowly begins to open up. But Riegel isn’t interested in big, cinematic twists, and Ruth’s college acceptance doesn’t set off a feel-good chain of events that end with movie-ready endings. The big trick: it all feels honest and real, but it’s never depressing, just credible and absorbing as a result.
Beyond Blaze, the institutions and people meant to help her fail at every turn, dimming Ruth’s aspirations under the guise of pragmatism. Mostly, it seems, people simply expect that because Ruth is poor now, that’s all she’ll ever be. Riegel immerses her audience in the hard truths of Ruth’s life, and while some of the early revelations feel a bit tacked on — like what’s happening with her mom, played by an underutilized Pamela Adlon — it works to place us in Ruth’s world and mindset with little fluff.
Despite the tribulations of Ruth’s life, Riegel and cinematographer Dustin Lane always find some beauty in the world, from the neat (if empty) storefronts that dot the high street to the cold beauty of a pack of dripping icicles on the side of Ruth’s house. An original score by Gene Back strikes the same chord: beauty, laced with pain, both possible even in tough times. There’s no artifice here, and Riegel easily sidesteps anything that might resemble “poverty porn,” such is the benefit of lived experience and real care behind the camera.
Eventually, Ruth and Blaze come to work for local scrap yard owner Hark (Austin Amelio), who brings them into his home and his world after seeing the duo’s desperation. The scrap crew becomes a de facto family for the siblings — and that may sound nice, but the good times are in very short supply — as they undertake the demanding, tough, and totally illegal work of stripping old factories for precious metals. Riegel wisely holds back on just how tough the gig is until the crew makes their first late-night run, a scary and tense sequence that serves a a miniature thriller smack in the middle of the drama.
Things will only get worse as the crew fractures, and “Holler” lands on a singular antagonist to stand in for much of the trouble in Ruth’s life, a big bad she can focus on fighting in the midst of a life beset by people dedicated to hamstringing her. Barden remains stellar throughout, finding nuance and pain in Ruth that never, ever feels forced or over-the-top (a lesson that the cast of “Hillbilly Elegy” might have wanted to learn while treading similar waters). Riegel’s singular focus on Ruth does mean that other performances feel less fully formed, including Halper’s one-note turn as Blaze and Adlon’s undercooked work as the pair’s mom.
But who can blame Riegel for staying so dedicated to Barden and her Ruth, when her work is stellar enough to push the film into such engaging, compelling spaces? “Holler” may mark Riegel’s feature debut and the latest of Barden’s impressive leading roles, but they make for a pair worth shouting about.
IFC Films will release “Holler” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, June 11.
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