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 tough, resourceful high school senior named Ruth (Jessica Barden) whose family struggles to survive in a dying industrial community, and who 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 Harper) and her mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon), a drug addict who’s drying out in county jail. The characters are vividly etched and have a understated, wire-tough realness that has become increasingly 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, a country that has lost whatever sense of collective responsibility it used to have, 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 so hard to earn a halfway decent living otherwise.
The story is simple and 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 in the beginning) but caught-on-camera observation: we watch people work, play, communicate with their loved ones and coworkers, and move from point A to point B. As captured by Riegel, cinematographer Dustin Lane, and editor Kate Hickey, the result 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 the street holding two bags of cans she stole from a local business as an employee chases her on foot. She gets into a pickup truck driven by her brother Blaze. They head to a local scrapyard owned and operated by Hark (Austin Amelio), who gives them what they think is an unfairly low price.
Hark—a magnetic, long-haired, chain-smoking hustler of a character, 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 if they want to make real money, they can join him and his crew on more complex and risky scrapping runs. These turn out to involve breaking and entering businesses to collect discarded piping and other bits of scrap and—the Holy Grail for scrappers—copper wiring and other material, which yields the best prices. 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 legal caretaker to his younger sister (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 a local frozen meal factory where Rhonda used to work, and where her 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—it’s so great to see her, Adlon, Amelio and other superb, lesser-known actors being given believable, real-world people to inhabit. Their more colorful work is anchored to the lead performances by Halper (of “Cold Pursuit” and TV’s “Madam Secretary”) and Barden (of Channel 4’s “The End of the F*****g World”), which are more quiet, reactive and internal.
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 pirate laughter, unnamed girls sitting on guys’ laps, boastful recounting of prior exploits, macho preening. At one point, Hark shows off his crossbow. There are guns on the walls.
You can tell that Blaze and (to a lesser extent) Ruth, who’ve lived a more sheltered life, are liberated by the feeling of danger and macho camaraderie that they experience 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 very good at her new job—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.
“Holler” is a drum-tight movie (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 mind 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 isn’t the third or fourth person in a century-old showbiz dynasty, nor did she come from a family that made a comfortable living in some other business and comfortably supported her while tried to break in. Riegel grew up poor and served in the Army before turning to filmmaking. You can tell by the look and the feel of “Holler” that it was made 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 the strongest person down.
One gets the feeling Riegel could tell you many more stories about this place and its people, because they’re her place, and her people. She knows this territory the way Ruth knows her own hands, which become increasingly battered and scarred by scrap metal 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 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 time talking to the people who lived there, returning with a 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.