It’s a cliché of coming-of-age dramas: a girl riding in a vehicle, beaming with rebellious glee. Maybe she’s feeling infinite in the back of a pick-up truck. Maybe she’s running her bare palms through the air as pulsing pop music blares of limitless possibilities. Maybe she’s in a prom dress. Most often, she is a symbol of the glory of youth, reckless and vividly alive. Not in Holler. Here, she is wrapped not in sequins but in ratty hand-me-downs and a knit cap meant to combat the cold. She’s not standing tall and bold in the cab of a truck but curled in the corner, her knees to her chest to make room for stolen scrap metal that is her prize. Her smile is not for the world but for herself, revealed only in the flashes of passing street lights. Her pride is not radiant but fragile. Her recklessness speaks not of youthful naiveté but of a crushing awareness of her own lack of opportunity. It’s enough to make you want to holler.
The feature directorial debut of writer/helmer Nicole Riegel, Holler stars Jessica Barden as Ruth, a high school senior scraping by in Ohio by selling scrap to shady dealers. Her problems aren’t prom dates and cliques. She’s living in poverty with no clear escape. Eviction notices paper her front door, threatening homelessness. The running water has been shut off, so she and her high school dropout brother (a tender Gus Halper) are scrambling for quick cash. Her grades are slipping, because while Ruth is remarkably smart, she’s got little time for homework. Still, she gets an acceptance letter to college. In some tales, that might be the happy ending. For Holler, it’s the inciting incident that pushes Ruth and her brother into the rickety crew of a snarling salvager (an alluring yet unnerving Austin Amelio).
Set in an industrial town, Holler shines a light on the people that politicians love to speak about but rarely speak to. President Donald Trump’s assurances of “jobs jobs jobs” and saving factories play as a kind of background track to this drama, speaking to how such promises are little more than white noise to those they are meant to aid. Riegel paints her desolate town with simple staging, showing Ruth against a backdrop of blight, silent train tracks, and billowing smokestacks. Following in the footsteps of Debra Graniks’s Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace and Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods, Riegel explores through a masterful character study how poverty impacts American women.
Ruth is a girl of few words, and so won’t unleash a syrupy monologue about the evils of wealth inequality or cry about her circumstances. Instead, a panoply of pitfalls is visually presented, revealing how treacherous Ruth’s path to adulthood is. A teen-mom peer with a baby on her hip laments missing school. An older man’s attention slides from fatherly to flirtatious. A criminal track is teased that could pay well or could land her in lock-up like her mom. Then, there’s the factory, where you can do everything right and still end up out on your ass, because the unseen big wigs don’t give a damn about the little guy.
Politics burn at the core of Holler but doesn’t dare derail into the theoretical. The human cost of stump-speech lip-service is exposed in the pained expressions of laborers like motherly Linda (a superbly sincere Becky Ann Baker), as she chirps, “Write if you get work!” It’s in the crooked scowl of Ruth’s mother (Pamela Adlon), a drug addict who spits, “We’re not college people.” It’s in the fear that shakes Ruth’s brother, who laments he doesn’t know how to provide for the sister who’s only three years his junior. Most powerfully, it’s in the guarded expression of a girl whose only protection against all this is her smarts.
Barden has been feminine and fragile in The Lobster, giddy and girly in Hanna, smirking and quirky in The End of the F***ing World. Here, she is none of the above. Ruth is a role so restrained, that in lesser hands she might seem dead inside. But Barden sees what Riegel has constructed in her script through world-building, supporting characters, and what Ruth chooses to say and leave unspoken. Barden fills this space not with easy charm but with a riveting resolution. Her mouth lies in a resigned pout, accustomed to disappointment. Her voice, soft but weary, speaks of the weight of her every day. Yet no matter the scene, no matter what is said, you can see the gears churning behind Barden’s burning blue eyes.
Simply put, Holler is a knockout and Barden is its MVP. While the whole cast is steeped in the grit of Riegel’s empathetic and elegant script, Barden takes its full weight upon her slumped shoulders and gives us a heroine who is introverted yet unveiled. If there’s any justice, Holler will earn her the hype that came Jennifer Lawrence’s way after Winter’s Bone or Thomasin McKenzie’s after Leave No Trace. For Barden is a subtle stunner. And she’s not alone.
Riegel’s quiet confidence in constructing a tale of politics, poverty, and girlhood is extraordinary. It’s dizzying to know this is her first feature film. She refuses to talk down to her audience, giving us all we need in visuals and slight exposition cues. She spares us histrionics because such garishness would be a disservice to the spirit of her defiant protagonist. With this, she builds a film that is heart-rattlingly poignant, haunting, and among the best of the year.
Holler opens in select theaters, on digital, and On Demand on June 11.
Holler was originally reviewed out of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival’s Industry Selects roster.
Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10-19. For more on how you can participate, visit the TIFF website.
Header Image Source: Hunting Lane Films