'Holler' Is a Rare Trump-Era Film with Subtlety Directed by Nicole Reigel
Starring Jessica Barden, Gus Halper, Pamela Adlon, Austin Amelio
Published Jun 10, 2021There have been a flood of films from the past few years — the Borat sequel, The Post, The Comey Rule — which all lack any sort of subtlety when trying to critique the myriad ways Trump has damaged America. They were topical, but not emotionally resonant. Enter Holler, where, only a few minutes into the film, a radio is playing a Trump speech in which he promises to bring jobs back to Ohio. Fortunately, what may seem like an indication of another over-the-top critique of the bad orange man turns out to be a more honest and subdued look at the issues so many Americans face.
Holler follows Ruth as she navigates her final year of high school in small-town Ohio. Ruth (Jessica Barden) is dealing with her share of problems, as she and her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) spend their days rummaging for bottles and cans to sell at the local scrapyard to try and pay off their overdue bills. Their mother (Pamela Adlon) has been jailed for drug abuse, specifically because of an addiction to painkillers (originally prescribed by her doctor), which she developed after suffering a work injury at the manufacturing plant where Blaze also works. Despite her bad attendance record at school, Ruth discovers that she's been accepted to college, accelerating the need to make a lot of money in a hurry. It just so happens that the owner of the scrapyard, Hark (Austin Amelio), has an opening for Ruth and her brother. Together, they work the scrapyard during the day, and at night they break into the abandoned factories around town to steal valuable metals, which proves to be very dangerous work.
As much as Holler focuses on the story of Ruth, director Nicole Riegel (in her feature-length debut) also examines the damage of capitalism on the small Ohio town, a stand-in for many others like it across America. The people around Ruth are also struggling with paying their bills, as many of the town's plants have closed due to jobs being moved overseas. Ruth wants to pursue education beyond high school, but her guidance counsellor tells her that, with the weight of student debt, college just isn't a practical option. The likelihood of a brighter future seems like a pipe dream because of all the systemic and economic barriers that lie in the way.
The actors effectively demonstrate the weight their characters are carrying throughout the film. Jessica Barden's portrayal of Ruth is measured and subdued, as are the performances from the rest of the cast. The characters are tired and frustrated, burnt out by the lack of any hope for positive change. Barden's performance stands out particularly because of Ruth's age; despite her youth, her personal struggles have given her a thorough understanding of the much larger and complex issues that the country is facing. Despite "having her whole life ahead of her," as her brother states, optimism seems futile, but that doesn't stop Ruth from pushing for a better life, and Barden's quiet performance exhibits that dichotomy.
While the film as a whole delivers a compact and understated approach to its themes, there are a few moments that feel too on the nose. There are multiple audio clips from Trump speeches, including an instance where he claims "every child should be able to climb the ladder to success." As the scrap crew searches for metals in an abandoned factory, there is a lingering shot of dozens of miniature American flags on the ground — hammering home the point that, for so many Americans, they too have been left behind and forgotten.
However, those clumsy moments are not enough to prevent the film from succeeding as a whole. Riegel's film has captured the core issues in the heart of America in such a succinct and respectful way. In only 90 minutes, she's created a story that feels real and lived-in, and one that reflects the everyday concerns of so many. While there have been many disappointing Trump-era political films in recent memory, this certainly is not one of them. (IFC)