Holler is a film that seems to have an uncanny psychic link to its characters and environment, a kind of synthesis between form and subject that can’t be manufactured, only felt. Portraits of Rust Belt desperation are quite popular in the industry of late, to the point that Appalachian Misery Porn should be designated its own prestige subgenre. Here, finally, is a Rust Belt portrayal that feels authentic to very specific people in a very specific place. It’s neither a work of scorn nor pity, but simply a clear-eyed, lived-in story.
It is so lived-in that not only is the film about people on the margins, but it’s a film whose greatest charms live on the margins, those almost-invisible details of character and setting that elevate the material beyond a simple narrative. An angry neighbor whose cross-patio shouting is part of the fabric of everyday life. The lunch breaks at the local factory that seem to attract the entire town like family meetings. The minor-key grudges that persist among the townspeople but never come to blows because everyone has an innate understanding that they must simply co-exist. These pockets of fully realized authenticity populate Hollerso densely and effortlessly that it would feel like a verité portrait if not for the sneaking wit of its authorial voice elevating it above mere replication.
That voice belongs to writer-director Nicole Riegel, making her feature debut with a hand so steady and assured that its clear this material has been simmering within her for years, aching to boil over on the screen. Riegel grew up in Jackson, Ohio, where the film was shot, and she has an innate understanding of the beats of Appalachian life. This is not necessarily a biographical portrait, and it might lack the necessary distance and perspective if it was. Rather, it’s a snapshot of an environment’s essence: a community in perpetual decline, the various coping strategies of its lifelong residents, and the internal tug-of-war between moving on and feeling loyal to home.
That tug-of-war rages within Ruth (Jessica Barden), exceptionally bright, thirsting for knowledge, and barreling towards high school graduation but staring down a future of struggle and squalor. Ruth has spent her entire life in a desolate Southern Ohio town that is ravaged, empty, and desperate. Of course, it wasn’t always this way, its once-bustling economy fueled by a manufacturing boom that slowly, painfully dwindled with each outsourced job leading to another plant closing. The residents wear that gradual descent on their faces, the furrowed brows now functioning as a form of armor against any additional pain. For Ruth, who so relishes education that she does her neighbor’s homework and balks at the notion of receiving payment, the notion of going to college sparks an internal swirl of excitement and dread. The promise of a better life is undercut by an inherent loyalty to her home and family.
It doesn’t help that her family sends her mixed signals. “We’re not college people,” her mother (Pamela Adlon) tells her, with a tinge of sneering disdain against anyone who would dare suggest a college education makes an individual superior. On the other hand, her older brother, Blaze (Gus Halper), is so determined for Ruth to enter college that he submits her application without her knowledge. Blaze serves as Ruth’s legal guardian since her mother is in a court-mandated rehab stint for opioid addiction, the latest in what seems to be a continuing cycle of relapse and attempted recovery. Riegel handles that push-and-pull between familial loyalty and resentment with impressive deftness, especially so with the topic of opioid addiction, which is an easy pitfall for films in similar settings. Holler doesn’t prescribe a specific audience response but presents an honest, searing conflict between people with inextricable bonds.
Holler thrives in those complicated character-driven moments, the subtle, unmistakable, messy details that truly define these people and the place in which they’re stuck but to which they feel obligated to remain. There is, eventually, more plot-driven material involving the illegal looting of abandoned factories that Ruth participates in to build her college nest egg, but all the surrounding local color is so interesting that any plotting almost feels like a distraction. Another distraction: the screenplay, either via unconscious accident or pointed homage, hinges its narrative on very specific Good Will Hunting references that feel out-of-place in this otherwise very singular piece. Those distractions are, ultimately, very minor in a film so dripping in authenticity, driven by a spectacular lead performance by Barden, and sprung from the aching experience of Riegel, from whom I cannot wait to see more.