Everything in Holler is faded, like an old photograph. It’s not only clear that this town’s glory days are well in the rearview mirror: it’s hard to imagine a time when it was ever thriving in the first place. This is an utterly decimated vision of rural Ohio, the heart of the Rust Belt, where factory jobs don’t come with the union guarantee of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work like they used to, and opportunities to thrive are few and far between. We’ve seen poverty porn on our screens before (Hillbilly Elegy, anyone?), but Holler avoids the trap of feeling exploitative by maintaining an intense character focus. Every relationship in Holler feels nuanced and lived-in, and the performances by the main cast, led by a prickly, impulsive Jessica Barden, are refreshingly unpretentious in their depiction of rural life below the poverty line.
Barden stars as Ruth, a bright high school senior who has more or less resigned herself to a dead-end life filled with struggle. Her opioid-addicted mother is in prison and her father isn’t in the picture, so she and her older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) are left to their own devices. They fight to make ends meet with his factory job, the money she makes selling schoolwork to classmates, and the rare bit of scrap metal they’re able to scavenge from a junkyard. The water’s always on the brink of being turned off, and even having enough gas in the tank to drive around their small, decaying town can’t be taken for granted. Everyone in Holler is bone-tired, with no way out.
When Blaze submits a college application on Ruth’s behalf and she is accepted, there’s suddenly the faintest possibility of a different kind of life for Ruth, one that isn’t defined by desperation. But getting into college isn’t the same thing as being able to afford college, and the only way the two siblings can manage to make money quickly is both dangerous and illegal. They join a team that cannibalizes the corpses of abandoned factories, relics of Ohio’s once-booming industrial economy, to sell scrap to Chinese contractors.
In a lot of films like Holler, ones that feature a young person struggling against adversity, there’s an impulse to romanticise them. To highlight how deserving they are of a better life, they’re portrayed as clever, empathetic, and kind: even when they’re a little rough around the edges, it’s always in a charmingly endearing way. The scrappy underdog. So it’s sort of refreshing that Holler doesn’t go out of its way to make Ruth particularly likeable. She’s angry and abrasive, bitter at the hand she’s been dealt by the world, and doesn’t really care if she is perceived as “nice.” Jessica Barden has always excelled in these sorts of roles: brash, unpredictable characters who, beneath their suit of armor, lies a person who has been hurt and disappointed so many times that she refuses to be let down ever again. But although Ruth is pessimistic about her own future, she is nevertheless a pure force of will, utterly determined to see her decisions through once she’s made them.
Holler goes to great lengths to build out Ruth’s relationships with her brother Blaze and Linda (Becky Ann Baker), a factory manager, long-time friend of the family, and surrogate mother figure. They feel dynamic and well-established: there’s history here, even if it isn’t spelled out, and even in their griping and frustration you can feel the strength of their bond. Life during the Ohio winters is brutal, and folks stick together. Halper is especially effective as Blaze, who has been suddenly placed in the role of provider for his family, and the stress of being perpetually overwhelmed and out of his depth comes off of him in waves.
Holler operates on two equally compelling levels. It’s a coming-of-age story about a girl who, after major familial upheaval, struggles to even wrap her mind around the concept of a future for herself. But it’s also a bitter commentary on the reality of rural poverty, the dying towns defined by job loss, opioid addiction, and both economic and emotional depression. Still, Holler never sentimentalizes the struggles they face, or makes their plight seem noble in a quintessentially American, salt-of-the-earth kind of way. Neither does it come across as melodramatic or exploitative, like a bunch of out-of-touch Hollywood elites rolled into town to tell a story about the poors. Holler is…honest, for lack of a better word: its understated performances and rich storytelling give it a tremendous authenticity and emotional resonance.
HOLLER OPENS IN SELECT THEATRES AND ON DEMAND/DIGITAL ON FRIDAY, JUNE 11, 2021