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Nicole Riegel makes her directorial debut with Holler, a familiar coming-of-age film about a young woman trying to find a way out of her hometown in Southern Ohio. Ruth (Jessica Barden of Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World) lives with her older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) as her drug-addicted mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) is stuck at the county jail until she agrees to go to rehab. Ruth works at a factory with her brother, under the watchful eye of Linda (Becky Ann Baker), who acts as her surrogate mother. What follows is a cut-and-dry story of tough situations and even tougher decisions as Ruth stares down the rest of her life.
Despite her constant rebellion, Linda does her best to look after Ruth. She’s the kind of boss who truly loves her employees and tries to give them a fair shake in a society that is dedicated to marginalizing them for their working-class status. She stands up for Rhonda, even as Ruth becomes increasingly hostile toward her mother. Linda is the heart of the film, trying to impart her patience and empathy to Ruth, who is skipping school and may not get her diploma. Considering the urgency of her final days in high school, it’s unclear why Ruth is so dedicated to acting out. Still, the film does a good job of depicting the actions of a desperate teenager with so little supervision.
At the beginning of the movie, Ruth is on course to stay in town forever when it’s revealed that Blaze finished her college application and sent it in for her. She’s accepted but finds she doesn’t have the money to go. Feeling trapped and low on options, Ruth soon falls in with a dangerous older man named Hark (Austin Amelio) and his scrapyard crew. The crew is collecting scrap metal illegally, working out of a safe house, and with Hark paying under the table. Blaze was already hooked up with the crew, but becomes conflicted when Ruth joins. His fears are soon realized when Ruth takes to the work much faster and more recklessly than he expected.
On top of all that, Hark seems to have taken a liking to her. Thankfully, their romance is a queasy afterthought in the film, serving mainly to prove to Ruth that no man is worth staying in town for.
Baker shines as Linda, giving the kind of warm, grounded performance that made her roles in Freaks and Greeks and Girls so memorable. Likewise, Halper is compelling as Blaze; he has a quiet gentleness reminiscent of Brady Jandreau’s star-making turn in 2017’s The Rider. Amelio, channeling early Josh Lucas performances, is solid as Hark, though at times it feels like he’s sleepwalking through a familiar archetype.
It’s a shame that the film spends so much time on Ruth, a character who is only compelling because of the relatable plight she represents. Adlon doesn’t fare much better as Rhonda, giving a surprisingly phoned-in performance.
In the 10 years since Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance in Winter’s Bone, countless directors have attempted to replicate the look, feel and success of Debra Granik’s sophomore narrative feature. That film indeed seems to have marked a turning point in independent cinema. Whereas in the past these types of stories (Wanda, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) focused on adult women trying to navigate difficult situations, small-town narratives of resilient femininity now center teenage girls. Granik, a filmmaker known for her minimalist and naturalistic style, all but recreated this American indie sub-genre for modern audiences, further cementing her supremacy with 2018’s achingly human Leave No Trace. And yet Riegel seems to still be hung up on Winter’s Bone, making a slavishly imitative film with few flourishes that allow it to stand on its own.
That said, Riegel isn’t the only filmmaker hung up on that touchstone. The last year or so has seen the release of two such films, the comedic Blow the Man Down and the more somber, disturbing Mickey and the Bear. Much like those works, Holler is bathed in cool colors, with splashes of red and purple here and there. Ruth wears a red cap that seems to exist mainly to ensure that the audience can distinguish her from the many pale, exhausted characters that populate the film. Barden does her best with the material, displaying spirit and charm. But her delivery of the dialogue feels a bit too studied; there’s something stagey about her interactions onscreen, lacking the lived-in quality that the performance requires.
Perhaps this is the intention of the film, setting Ruth apart in order to remind us that she doesn’t really belong there. Holler gives us the impression that a college-bound working-class person has a different sensibility than those who live near their families and work a nine-to-five. And yet by showing how much help Ruth receives from Linda and Blaze, the film disproves its own thesis. The only thing that sets Ruth apart from the people around her is luck.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Industry Selects)
Production companies: Hunting Lane Films, Level Forward, Feigco Entertainment
Cast: Jessica Barden, Becky Ann Baker, Pamela Adlon, Gus Halper, Austin Amelio
Director-screenwriter: Nicole Riegel
Producers: Adam Cobb, Rachel Gould, Katie McNeill, Jamie Patricof, Christy Spitzer Thornton
Executive producers: Adrienne Becker, Abigail Disney, Paul Feig, Jessie Henderson, Gretchen McGowan
Director of photography: Dustin Lane
Production designer: Lance Mitchell
Costume designer: Ciara Whaley
Editor: Kate Hickey
Sound designers: Demetri Evdoxiadis
VFX supervisor: Alex Noble
Casting: Karmen Leech, Lani Thomison, John Williams
Sales: ICM Partners
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