Nicole Riegel’s debut feature “Holler” is a film to treasure—an intimate drama about family and work, steeped in details that can only have been captured by a storyteller who lived them. It follows a resilient, resourceful high school senior named Ruth (Jessica Barden) whose family struggles to survive in a dying industrial community in Ohio. Ruth is torn between leaving town to take her chances at college or staying behind out of a sense of responsibility to her big brother Blaze (Gus Halper) and her mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon), a drug addict who’s drying out in county jail. All the characters are vividly etched and have a understated, wire-tough realness that has become rare in American cinema.
But if you stand back and look at everything that happens, “Holler” is more than a coming-of-age story. It’s a wrenching portrait of the United States in the early 21st century. It’s a country that is losing what little sense of community responsibility it had fifty years ago, and is not only shredding what’s left of its safety net but is selling off the remnants of middle-class life, much like the metal scrappers at the center of this movie who scavenge the town for resalable material because it’s hard to earn a living otherwise.
The story is straightforward: here is a town, these are some of the people who live there, and these are a few of the things they do to get by. Most of “Holler” is conveyed not through expository dialogue (except for a few necessary but clunky bits at the start) but caught-on-camera observations. We watch people work, play, communicate with their loved ones and coworkers, and move from point A to point B, and that’s all we need to see the bigger picture. As captured by Riegel, cinematographer Dustin Lane, and editor Kate Hickey, “Holler” has the eerie you-are-there feeling of a documentary made by an invisible film crew that lived with the characters in their homes and workplaces.
The film begins with Ruth running down a street holding two bags of aluminum cans she stole from a local business while a employee chases her on foot. Ruth hops into a pickup truck driven by her brother Blaze and they head to a local scrapyard owned by Hark (Austin Amelio), who quotes them what they think is an unfairly low price.
Hark—a magnetic, long-haired, chain-smoking hustler, played with gusto by Amelio, a costar of “The Walking Dead” and “Fear the Walking Dead”—tells Ruth and Blaze that times are tough and that’s the best price he can offer, but that if they want to make real money, they can join him and his crew on higher-yield scrapping runs. These involve breaking and entering businesses to collect discarded piping and other bits of scrap and—the Holy Grail for scrappers—copper wiring. Some of their targets appear to be abandoned, but others are functioning. It’s low-level thievery.
Much of the first part of the movie is set in three main places: the ramshackle home where Blaze acts as temporary guardian to Ruth (the water was turned off before the start of the story and we never see it being turned on); the county jail where the siblings visit Rhonda; and the frozen meal factory where Rhonda used to work. Rhonda’s best friend Linda is still employed, although there are rumors that layoffs are coming. Linda, a hard, wise woman with a wry smile, is played by the great character actress Becky Ann Baker, a performer of such depth that she can sketch a whole life in a single reaction shot.
Once Ruth and Blaze join Hark’s scrapper team, the emphasis shifts, and the movie becomes a bit of a crime picture. The activity starts revolving around Hark’s home in the woods, which has the feel of a party house or a gang’s headquarters: beer, weed, deafening music, chortling laughter, macho preening, strange women sitting on crew guys’ laps. Hark shows off a crossbow. There are guns on the walls.
You can tell that Blaze and (to a lesser extent) Ruth, who’ve lived more sheltered lives, are liberated by the danger and edgy camaraderie they encounter in Hark’s orbit. Nobody robs an armored car or a bank. It’s not that kind of movie. But this type of scrapping is quasi-legal or illegal, and from the plethora of buzz saws and crushing machines to the risk of getting shot by security guards, there’s no shortage of ways a person could get maimed or killed. Ruth is a natural at her new gig—so good that Hark starts grooming her as a sidekick, and perhaps something else—but she’s also smart enough to know that the path she’s heading down is a dark one.
It’s great to see Baker, Adlon, Amelio, and other superb, lesser-known actors playing believable, real-world supporting characters, all of whom are rich enough to merit a feature of their own. Their work really pops. And it’s contextualized by the lead performances of Halper (of “Cold Pursuit” and TV’s “Madam Secretary”) and Barden (of Channel 4’s “The End of the F*****g World”), which are quieter, more reactive and internal. You watch the two of them as they watch the the others.
The peak of their teamwork is a scene set at a roller rink. Blaze makes out by the video games with his girlfriend, a manipulative, grabby young factory worker that Ruth thinks is trying to trap her brother in town by having his baby. Meanwhile, Ruth skates around the rink with Hark, who is drunk and publicly flirting with her. Each sibling’s anxious glance to the other is both a reproach and a warning. There’s no dialogue in the scene. The actors say it all with their faces. When people use the word “cinematic,” this is one of the scenes they should be thinking of.
“Holler” is a drum-tight feature (90 minutes, including credits) that has enough plot for a longer film, but packs it in with such economy that the story seems to expand in your brain as you recall it. The setting is based on Jackson, Ohio, the filmmaker’s hometown, and much of the story is told from Ruth’s point-of-view. It’s easy to see where the script’s sense of lived experience and emotional truth comes from. Unlike a lot of people in the entertainment industry, Riegel doesn’t represent the third or fourth generation in a showbiz dynasty, nor did she come from a family that made a comfortable living in some other business and supported her while while she spent several years interning at Disney or CAA. She grew up poor and served in the Army before turning to filmmaking. There are filmmakers from privileged backgrounds who appreciate what it means to struggle, but even the best sometimes make you feel as if it’s all a bit abstract to them. You sense their sympathy for the weight of the struggle, but not the weight itself.
That’s never the case with “Holler.” Watching the film, you have no way of knowing what details are drawn from life and what’s made up, but it all feels not merely as if it could happen, but as if it did happen. And you can tell that it was dramatized by a person who is used to seeing beauty in places that we’re told aren’t beautiful, and looking for inner peace while living a life that could grind even a strong person down.
One gets the feeling Riegel could tell you a lot more stories about this place and its people. She knows this territory the way Ruth knows her own hands, which become increasingly battered by scrap work as the tale unfolds. Every frame has the aliveness of remembered experience, from the shots of plump stray cats climbing fences and loping through junkyards to the images of icicles melting, smokestacks billowing, and streetlights strobe-flashing overhead as a truck drives a dark road at night.
Shot with available light on real locations with a handheld 16mm film camera, “Holler” has the creamy-grainy look of mid-20th century American documentaries—the kind exemplified by the Maysles’ brothers’ “Salesman” and Barbara Kopple’s “Harlan County, USA,” where a tiny film crew would just go somewhere and spend a while in the community, returning with an unpretentious snapshot of what it was like to live their lives. It’s a modest classic—hopefully the first of many from a major new voice in American cinema.