If you liked the 2010 Jennifer Lawrence movie Winter's Bone, you're definitely going to like Holler. Their stories are different, but both films share a rawness and a sense of realism that almost makes them feel like documentaries. That's an extremely difficult thing to pull off. Writer/director Nicole Riegel makes an impressive debut, proving that she's a filmmaker with something to say, as well as the skill to say it with great potency.
Jessica Barden gives a stellar performance as Ruth, a teenager living in an economically-depressed Ohio town. Dad's not in the picture and Mom (Pamela Adlon) is in jail, so it's up to brother Blaze (Gus Halper) to take care of Ruth. He wants her to attend college to make a better life for herself. She, however, is semi-afraid of going off on her own. One winter, the two start working at a scrap yard run by Hark (Austin Amelio), a not entirely upstanding businessman. His shop is legit, but his favorite employees get to work on the side, going into abandoned buildings and stealing valuable copper wire.
Holler follows what happens from there, as Ruth gets increasingly sucked into scrap work and Gus attempts to prevent her from becoming too comfortable. If that doesn't sound like much, rest assured that there's plenty of drama here. Riegel captures the working-class way of life beautifully, showing the struggles that come with perpetually trying to scrape by. Ruth assumes there are no viable options for her, so making whatever cash she can seems logical. Gus, on the other hand, realizes his sister does have an option that's unavailable to him and many others – one most people in their situation would kill for.
The movie takes place in the grimy shop, the desolate streets filled with rundown structures, tiny rooms in tiny houses, etc. Riegel takes care to make every setting feel completely, utterly real. That serves to underline how difficult the situation is for Ruth. Holler wouldn't work if it was slick, big-budgeted, and heavily production-designed. We need the gritty atmosphere – aided here by 16mm cinematography – in order to fully comprehend why the characters make the choices they do.
At the center of it all is Jessica Barden, firmly establishing herself as a significant young actress. Her work as Ruth is nothing short of revelatory. This young woman lives in an area from which there is very little chance of escape. Everyone has resigned themselves to staying in this town, working at the local factory, and dying here. Because that's the way of life she sees, it's what she assumes is her own destiny. Barden conveys that outlook with crystal-clear precision, giving us a heroine whose plight we become legitimately invested in.
Holler tells a slice-of-life story that has a lot of resonance. There are people just like Ruth all over the country. This movie sees them and empathizes with them. It's one of the top indie films so far this year.
out of four
Holler is rated R for language and sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.