Toronto International Film Festival 2020: HOLLER

While survival and transitional stories are far from a new tale, their ability to interweave important topics and necessary conversations of the world into the narrative is what keeps them fresh and relevant. It is their ability to stay true to the issues through strong characters and solid setting that maintains their importance throughout the history of cinema. In 2020, director Nicole Riegel brings us Holler.

Originally slated to premiere at SXSW, Holler has patiently waited in the wings, the story of a young women’s fight for the right to education just as relevant as ever before. There is a rare nature and rough surface to Holler that will resonate with audiences, the need for survival, perseverance, and opportunity elements that we have all faced at one time or another.

A Tale of Choice, Survival, and Opportunity

Opening to a young woman running down the street, bags of aluminum cans in her hands, the fear of being caught pushing her every step, immediately sets the framework for not only the film but for the setting it is to take place in. There is a forgotten feeling, drab grey skies reflecting on a town unknown to the rest of the country. As Trump’s voice is heard over the radio, his promise of “jobs, jobs, jobs” is swiftly contrasted to the actual state of the town and its reliance on the factory for income, community, and stability. This is a town struggling to survive, yet resolved to its fate.

It’s breathtaking how quickly this setting is crafted and then immediately contrasted by the quiet brilliance of Ruth (Jessica Barden). While she is introduced as a quiet and reserved young woman, she is always watching, listening – analyzing. She is both brilliant and independent, scenes of Ruth in her kitchen picking up and doing school work for others, accompanied by “Ruth’s theme” from composer Gene Back, proves that a showcase in character depth is not just in the dialogue.

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: HOLLER
source: Toronto International Film Festival
While she yearns to break free of the town and it’s monotonous rhythm of uncertainty and an automized lifestyle, she has resolved that she can not leave, she can not reach for more – mostly because no one has ever told her she can. That is until her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) discovers her thrown away college application, filled out and essays written – which he dutifully sends out for Ruth. While her acceptance brings him joy, Ruth is put into a position of choosing between home and opportunity – the latter proving to more difficult to not only obtain but believe in.

Bringing Holler to Life

During the beginning of Holler, it is hard to see the film’s own identity at first, actions and dialogue of characters briefly calling back to Ruth of Ozarks, and the film itself feeling like a sister to Winter’s Bone and at times Another Earth. While a different wilderness, the similarities are hard to ignore, yet as the film progresses, it goes from influenced to influential. It takes a moment to settle in, to take in the scenery and town surrounding Ruth – and even to take Ruth herself in.
Ruth herself is given a solid introduction. Quiet, yet observant, highly intelligent but humble. She is also adaptable increasing not only her chance of survival in a brutal environment but ensuring her ability to push forward in whatever direction she chooses. She is brought to life by Jessica Barden whose performance is not only memorable but is a solid display of increasing talent as an actress. She is the heart and soul of Holler, her strength and ability to snap on and off the intensity of Ruth brilliantly wielded. If Winter’s Bone put Jennifer Lawrence on the map, this is sure to do the same for Barden –  definitely an actress to watch if you weren’t already.
The film’s color palette is immediately established giving a cold and depressing gloom to the town, the feeling as if it is drying up and left behind. There is an emptiness, a void where dreams seem to be discouraged and acceptance of the general reality is encouraged. Though while the color palette gives way to a dreary mood, it also finds its beauty. There is a majestic composition to the shots of the metal in the scrapyard, drawing a parallel to the town and its way of life to Ruth. She is the diamond in the rough, outshining those around her.

Through the majesty of the metal and mood of the palette, both are starkly contrasted by a red beanie that Ruth sports thought out a majority of Holler. It is a beacon, keeping your eyes locked on Ruth. Driving home the understanding that she is different than the town than those around her. She has a shine that needs to be given room to not only grow but encouragement to be brave enough to do so. There is a depth in this one pop of color that quietly exists in front of viewers, finding its own evolution and growth of meaning as the film progresses.

Toronto International Film Festival 2020: HOLLER
source: Toronto International Film Festival

With the focus still centralized on Ruth, the town, the factory, the lifestyle, and the struggles each become their own supporting characters. These are struggles and loses Ruth has not only witnessed but felt herself. These are the supporting characters that are not only pushing her to want more for herself but also tethering her in place.

With all this in mind, Holler finds its cohesive completion through the engulfing score from composer Gene Back. It is pensive, yet hopeful and optimistic. The strings fill the screen, pushing the rhythm of the film, Ruth, and the story forward.

Education and Opportunity

Holler takes a hard look at the opportunities that are denied and discouraged to our youth. In one of its more heartbreaking moments, a teacher, meant to inspire, discourages Ruth from pursuing college. Couple this with an arrest for stealing a library book – all because she is not allowed to take out books due to poor attendance – and Holler gives a glimpse into the reality we shape for students. You are only good for the life you are born into, to dream beyond discouraged. The denial of opportunity and a future before you even have the chance to embark on it.
We need to encourage our child to dream, to be the kids of the future. And everyone at that. Men, women, impoverished communities, immigrants. Every one deserves the chance to not only obtain a proper education but have it mean something. To have it push you forward. To dream. We can not resolve that factory life, as seen in Holler, is what everyone should be expected to pursue it it’s what everyone wants. That by wanting more, by even humoring the idea of more, is a worthy venture of not only thinking but doing.

Branching off the dissuading of further education and opportunity, Holler also gives a nod to the failings of the justice system as well. Beyond just Ruth’s arrest for stealing a book, her mother, a recovering drug addict (whose addiction spawned from a work accident) is kept at the county jail to get clean. There is little empathy shown to her mother’s position and how she got there, only that she is part of a cycle of addiction, criminality, and stereotypical expectations. The idea that the heavy hand of justice shows little mercy even on young as they are discovering themselves and those who suffer from battles and are struggling to win is a sad and harsh spotlight America finds itself under.

Conclusion: Holler

We need more stories like Holler, films unafraid to push the spotlight on the failures and shortcomings of our country and community placed on the youth – on the future. And not only the youth, but those who strive to just make it through each day.

There is a great sense of loss in Holler as you take in this framework the film provides and apply it to various places and people throughout the country. Communities and youth both affected. Yet, in this great sense of loss, there is also a deeply rooted feeling of hope whose brilliance is undeniable and unforgettable. Ruth is this hope, and Holler is her symphony.
Holler had its premiere at Toronto International Film Festival on September 9th. 

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