Nicole Riegel makes her eye-opening directorial debut with “Holler”, a richly textured movie with a deep personal connection with its creator. Riegel grew up in the American Rust Belt and shot “Holler” in her hometown of Jackson, Ohio. While the town and the characters in the movie are fictional, they’re very much inspired by Riegel’s own lived experience growing up in Jackson. And the lead character (wonderfully played by Jessica Barden) is a reflection of Riegel’s youth where as a young woman she worked hard to break a cycle and make it out of the crumbling town she came from.
But everything came full-circle when she returned to Jackson, this time as a young woman who had made it; as a filmmaker with both the opportunity and the perspective to tell an authentic and thoughtful story about growing up in a struggling Southern Ohio community. It’s something movies have often touched on but rarely with the lived-in point-of-view that we get from Riegel. Her touch can be felt throughout the film and while not perfect, the truth she conveys on screen makes for some riveting viewing.
Riegel opens her film with a quick introduction to the story’s central character Ruth Avery (Barden), a smart and resourceful high-school senior. It doesn’t take long to recognize how the deck seems stacked against her, and in many ways she seems resigned to her fate. There’s no sign of a father and her mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) is in the county jail for refusing to go to rehab. Ruth lives with her well-meaning older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) who does his best to provide for his sister but can’t afford to keep the water turned on and is constantly dodging foreclosure notices from the bank.
Riegel wrote the screenplay (which is based on her own short film) and she makes the brother/sister dynamic a key part of her story. Blaze wants his sister to have a better life and to go to college, something none of their family has ever done. Ruth has a strong loyalty to her brother and the idea of leaving him behind on his own is out of the question. This conflict, while centered around the sibling’s love for each other, stretches through the entire film and intensifies as their circumstances worsen.
The supporting characters are just as important and play a pivotal role in filling out the story and the town. Tops on the list is Austin Amelio as Hark, a local junkyard owner who hires a desperate Blaze and Ruth to collect scrap metal that he then sells on the side. Hark is an intriguing presence – a product of the town who always has a sly way of rationalizing what he does whether it’s legal or not. Yet it feels like there is so much of his story that’s left out making him a hard character to figure out. Becky Ann Baker adds a welcomed warmth to every scene she’s in playing Linda, a close friend of Ruth’s family. She too is a character we’re left wanting to know more about.
But it all mostly comes back to Barden who’s actually 28-years-old yet is utterly convincing as a high-schooler. She gives us glimpses of Ruth’s youthful spirit – a young girl full of potential, bouncing around in her red knit toboggan and full of curiosity. Yet we mostly see is a girl mature beyond her years, forced by her circumstances to grow up early and reflecting the hardships that have been a part in her life since she was a child. It’s a remarkable performance and Riegel is smart to lean into her talented star.
DP Justin Lane shoots a lot of scenes in somber blue tones emphasizing the misery and the despair. At this point it’s a technique that has been done so much you almost expect it. Lane’s camera really shines in the more intimate and personal moments where the characters are the focus. He also does a great job capturing the town and grounding us in the setting which is such a vital component to the story. But the visuals stumble a bit in what you may call ‘action scenes’. Mostly shot at night, these few scenes can be dark and murky to the point of being indecipherable. It’s more frustrating than problematic.
“Holler” ends up being one of those rare movies that doesn’t just talk about small town life. Instead it offers a clear-eyed undiluted vision of living under the poverty line. It’s gritty, authentic, and without a ounce of pretense. And not only is it an impressive feature film debut for Nicole Riegel, it also highlights Jessica Barden whose thoughtful and layered performance drives much of the movie. Both are immensely talented women and you can’t help but be anxious for what each will do next. “Holler” hits theaters June 11th.