HollerReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/11/21 09:43:26
SCREENED VIA INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2021: I wouldn't necessarily have guessed that "Holler" is filmmaker Nicole Riegel's second go at the material, but it makes sense in retrospect - the story at the center is straightforward, but with a lot more room to explore the world around it, even if she doesn't make things that much more intricate and complicated than you might find in a ten-minute short. It kind of lives right on the line where one might want her to explore certain things further but are also glad they aren't forced, winding up a familiar tale but still fairly satisfying.It opens with Ruth (Jessica Barden) dashing down the street and hopping into a truck with brother Blaze (Gus Halper); with their mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) in jail because she can't afford rehab and jobs scarce in this small Ohio town, selling scrap to salvage-yard owner Hark (Austin Amelio) is the best way they can make ends meet. It means her attendance at school is lousy, which is a shame, because she's smart enough to get into college, although to make the kind of money where the family could afford that, they're going to have to get a little deeper into Hark's organization, where they raid abandoned factories at night for the copper wire, an order of magnitude more illegal, dangerous, and lucrative than what they've been doing.
The action in Holler probably stretch out over more than a couple weeks or so, but maybe not by that much, and one of its great strengths is that this fairly manageable slice of time means that the filmmakers don't ever feel the need to start from scratch or have anyone undergo a massive change. It lets one get a general idea what it's like to live in this sort of decaying town, and let the cast be generally authentic rather than getting tripped up on too many specifics. Jessica Barden is in nearly every scene and the audience gets to know her Ruth fairly well even without some defining trauma to hang on her, smart and angry enough to push back but just trusting enough under the cynical posturing for betrayals to hurt (and to occasionally believe what people say about her). She and Gus Halper are well enough in sync to come across as siblings without having to do too much to underline it - the script has them in each other's business and they don't oversell - with Halper playing Blaze as maybe not quite as positioned for bigger things as Ruth but not self-martyring about it. Becky Ann Baker doesn't need a lot of explanation as the friend of their mother's who takes an interest, and Austin Amelio finds a level of capable scuzziness that makes Hark dangerous but not obviously villainous.
The downside of it being so slice-of-life is that there are times when it feels like Riegel could dig a lot deeper but the path she's chosen doesn't allow it. There's this big, obvious metaphor in how it seems like the only way to make a buck in this town is to tear everything that American industry left behind up and sell the Chinese; maybe it deserves a movie of its own, but given that the film eventually leans toward "Ruth has what it takes to get out", maybe it deserves a little more. The whole deal with Ruth applying to college is also the part of the story that seems unique enough to maybe be worth digging into her thought process a little - she does everything up to sending her application in, which Blaze does in secret, and she's apparently buying into how college won't teach her anything staying won't until she's not. There's potentially great material in how so many folks in the lower economic classes see higher education as something that, paradoxically, is both corrupting and something they're not worthy of. Heck, at one point it walks right up to her having to convince a teacher that she deserves this and then just skips that scene. The finale similarly has the feel of everything that needs to happen occurring and in the right order, but never actually making this feel inevitable or something only Ruth would think of.
For all those flaws, it's pretty darn good for a first feature. The 16mm cinematography by Dustin Lane looks great, really capturing the windy and gray winter when it takes place, especially when a fair amount of the action takes place at night. The story may be simple, but the pacing is good; time rolls forward at a measured clip but the film never bogs down, and Riegel is good at inserting pieces of other connected lives in a way that gives a fuller picture of what this family is up against without ever pulling away from Ruth. The detail is solid enough that the film can make up in immersion for what it maybe lacks in complexity."Holler" is a well-made movie, although it does make me wonder if it would be better if there were more like it. Only a handful of movies seem to be set in this portion of America each year, compared to the cities and the comfortable suburbs, and if there were more, maybe they would have to dig a little deeper than this one does.
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