Written and Directed by Nicole Riegel.
Starring Jessica Barden, Pamela Adlon, Becky Ann Baker, Austin Amelio, Gus Halper, and Grace Kaiser.
To pay for her education, and the chance of a better life, a young woman joins a dangerous scrap metal crew.
Surprisingly, Holler is an adaptation of a short film (both are written and directed by Nicole Riegel, making her feature-length debut here) because once it’s over, it feels as if it wasn’t long enough in some stretches. The narrative introduces an assortment of baggage for protagonist Ruth (Jessica Barden), an intelligent girl on the cusp of high school graduation with so much going on she doesn’t feel it’s worth mailing in the college application she has already filled out. Watchful older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) takes it upon himself to go behind Ruth’s back and sends it in any way, as he desperately wants a better life for her (he never graduated and also struggles) and for someone in the family to escape the impoverished southern Ohio town (a market that Donald Trump promised and failed to bring jobs back to, as speeches over the radio remind us). To their shock, Blaze’s excitement, and Ruth’s disapproval of her brother’s actions, she is accepted.
As to be expected, the color palette here is cold and drab, suggesting that life has always been miserable for these two (although there are small beautiful moments showing us that the siblings do care for one another and provide some happiness for each other). Their mother (Pamela Adlon, the only one here who seems to be overacting a tad bit) is a drug addict in jail, they live alone with their only parental figure being the manager of the factory they work at (Becky Ann Baker, shining in this guardianship role), and while college could be the ticket out of this dump for one of them, there is also the pickle of scrounging up the money to do so.
As a result, Ruth and Blaze decide to take up scrapyard work for a shady fellow named Hark (Austin Amelio), who offers some illegal work on the side, breaking into shutdown factories and pillaging its sellable values (copper proves to be in high demand). All of it is work Ruth should be above, as evident when a buyer takes advantage of Hark’s inability to do math which she immediately notices when looking at the numbers. From the beginning, when she is getting paid to do algebra in her head for a fellow student, it’s clear this is not where she belongs. And yet, she seems to be convincing herself that college is not for her, going to be useless and that she does have a life in the rundown trashy town.
There is also a part of me that finds it hard to believe a teenager would be so willing to stay behind and not be counting the seconds to escape such nothingness, but the earnest and nuanced performances take Holler a long way, especially the dynamic between brother and sister. Bad apples like Hark don’t help matters by reassuring Ruth that if she stays and gets into the scrapyard world, she can climb to the top of the mountain, something he believes she will be unable to do off at college. In his creepiest moments, he also develops a sexual desire for Ruth that she appears indifferent to. Presumably, it’s because she’s just empty and unsure of what choice to make.
The robberies also begin to turn dangerous, seemingly serving as a wake-up call for Ruth that no matter how much she cares and wants to stay with her brother, there’s nothing for her here. Hopefully, it’s just not too late to escape. It also doesn’t help that her mother shames her for considering heading off to college during jail visits. Again, Holler could probably use a bit more to each of these threads (the factory the siblings work at is also in danger of shutting down). Still, the talent, specifically Jessica Barden, sells the emotional pain and conflicted state of mind. It’s a solid effort grounded in authenticity rather than melodramatic poverty porn.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com