Writer/director Nicole Riegel’s feature debut, Holler, expands upon her 2016 short of the same title. Originally a story of two young brothers making ends meet, the film was recast and reshot as a spiritual successor to Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, which I’d covered from the Dallas International Film Festival in 2010. The movie’s protagonist, Ruth (Jessica Barden), aspires to better than languishing in the bleak economics of Jackson, Ohio—population 6,242.
Constantly skipping class to work in a frozen foods plant, Ruth steals books from her school library. She and her brother, Blaze (Gus Halper), pick up extra work in a scrapyard. When caught trying to sell the scrap back to the owner, Hark (Austin Amelio), Blaze explains that they’re trying to save up money for Ruth—recently accepted to college.
Competently directed and acted, it’s challenging to think of anything particularly groundbreaking Riegel’s film brings to the sub-genre that put Jennifer Lawrence on the map. Murmurs of the plant being bought out, talk of “manufacturing drying up left and right,” Trump on the radio touting false promises of a return to the manufacturing economy. “Pack of smokes”, beer, guns, crossbows, second husbands. The bookish kid who dreams of getting out of town. The junkie mother. The brother who wants to sacrifice everything so the sibling can be the first to escape small town hell. The streetwise, surrogate mom. I don’t know how many more boxes one can check off, and I grew up in North Dakota.
At 28, Barden, who played the weirdly precocious Sophie in Joe Wright’s 2011 thriller Hanna, can convincingly play a pensive yet observant teen whose smarts are utterly wasted finding better ways to steal copper wire from construction sites.
“She’s smart here,” persuades Hark.
“What’s that mean?” Ruth asks.
Resigned, Hark answers, “It means here at least you can see the top.”
Most of the adults in town contently exploit children for labor. Save for one break where the scrap crew has beers at a roller rink, kids have no life here. Like a pack of vampires, the adults desperately protract the town’s inevitable decline.
Winter’s Bone excelled by painting the story in oblique strokes. Holler plays best when it’s focused narrowly on its two principals. As soon as the lens widens into the backdrop of Jackson, the tropes—though resonant with my childhood in North Dakota—are a little too on the nose. A good first feature for writer/director Nicole Riegel, Holler offers Barden, Halper, and Amelio a vehicle to move into bigger roles, yet treads too familiar a formula in the Rural Dead-End Dreams sub-genre.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival.