Movie Review: 'Holler' is Authentic Rust Belt Drama
Tired of Hollywood's stereotypical rube characters, Nicole Riegel crafts an authentic midwestern, rust belt drama in Holler.
Thank you Nicole Riegel! Nicole Riegel is the director of the new drama, Holler and for once, a movie set in the rust belt isn’t defined by terrible clothes and bad wigs. Riegel, a native of a small town in Southern Ohio, has made a movie in Holler that brushes aside Hollywood stereotypes about midwestern hicks and Appalachian residents and found an authentic way to tell a story about being below the poverty line, one that doesn’t waste millions of dollars on terrible wigs and bad teeth.
Holler stars Jessica Barden as Ruth, a High School student on the verge of graduating. Ruth’s brother, Blaze (Gus Halper) is intent on sending her to college but Ruth doesn’t believe it is possible. The pair live in a squalid home, well below the poverty line and their mother, Rhonda (Pamela Adlon), is of no use as she is currently in jail on drug charges. Brother and sister scrape by on the little money they make selling scrap at a local scrap yard, certainly not a job that will provide enough for online courses, let alone a full ride at a big college.
The plot of Holler kicks in when Ruth and Blaze become fed up with the scrap dealer, Hark (Austin Amelio), and demand better payouts on the scrap they bring in. Respecting their moxie, Hark recruits them to work for him. The job will have them give up their home to move into Hark’s house, outside of town, they were being evicted from their home anyway. By day, the two will work at the scrap yard but at night, they will join Hark’s crew as they sneak into defunct factories in the area and steal whatever copper and valuable metal they can steal.
It’s a dangerous and illegal job but given that these factories have sat unused, monuments to the greed of decades of corrupt manufacturers and Wall Street fat cats, it does feel like a victimless crime. Ruth even begins to take a liking to her new role. The money is not bad, certainly better than before and the crew has the feel of a misshapen family with Hark at the head. Blaze however, has a surprise in store, he’s applied to a college and Ruth has gotten in. Blaze wants Ruth to just go, take his truck and never look back.
The conflict between practical matters and the desire for a dream to come true is at the heart of Holler. Repeatedly throughout the movie, a teacher pops up as a true villain. He takes one look at Ruth and decides that her best bet isn’t college, it’s trade school, at best. He continually stands in her way and is not the least bit caring or understanding regarding her need to work nights and weekends and how this affects her ability to turn in assignments on time in his class. The teacher is not a major character, but he’s used effectively to demonstrate how the traditional structures of society can be imposing for those trying to overcome them.
Jessica Barden is a revelation in Holler. Her performance has the authenticity that drives really great storytelling. That comes from Barden’s remarkable talent but also from director Nicole Riegel, an auteur in the making, who uses the character of Ruth and by extension, Barden, to tell her own true story. Riegel shot Holler in her hometown of Jackson, Ohio, at a scrapyard like the one she’d sold scrap to when she was younger. The director was incredibly hands-on and when Barden works with equipment in the movie, you can be sure, Riegel did it first and from previous experiences.
You might assume right off the bat that since this is set in Southern, Ohio, near Appalachian country, that drugs, opioids or Meth, would play a role in the movie but they don’t. Rather than portray this part of the country as Hollywood does, Riegel set out to tell an authentic story from her own memories and experiences and that meant eschewing the Hollywood tropes, shooting handheld and going low budget to create a movie that exists in a reality people in that area will recognize, a below the poverty line story that isn’t dictated by stereotypes or shorthand.