TIFF Review: Holler is a remarkable coming-of-age drama and directorial debut from Nicole Riegel

Jessica Barden stars as Ruth Avery, a high school student who lives in Jackson, Ohio with her older brother Blaze (Gus Halper). She is intelligent and resilient but due to her living conditions, she is looked down upon by people at school to the point that she has to resort to stealing books (i.e. Madame Bovary) from the library due to her lack of a stellar attendance record.

Their mother (Pamela Adlon) is in a detox program in prison due to her drug abuse (addiction to painkillers) and it is up to the two siblings to get by financially by gathering scrap for the local junkyard. One day, a major opportunity comes up in the form of a letter, saying that Ruth is accepted to her college.

Ruth and Blaze decide to join a scrap metal crew for financial gain, which is led by Hark (Austin Amelio), who sell their supplies to nearby factories who then sell to foreign buyers. But major factors like money and self-doubt prevent her from going. Will Ruth go to college and seize the opportunity for a hopeful future or will she stay back home in Jackson with her family?

Holler is a feature-length expansion of Riegel’s 2016 short film of the same name. From the looks of the synopsis, the film looks like it could have been a prime example of cinematic miserabilism; where every single moment of contrivance heaps upon the lead character to the point where he or she feels like a plot device (or a vessel) of ideas rather than a character one can relate to. Thankfully, the film never falls into that trap as writer/director Nicole Riegel steers her storytelling toward something more human and inspirational.

Riegel also could have taken the route where the themes of the story (i.e. filial duty, economic decline, living below the poverty line) became more prevalent over character through bombastic filmmaking but she conveys those themes implicitly and establishes the story beats with a nuanced approach. It is even more impressive that she has lots of things to say in the story and yet it is kept at a remarkably lean runtime of 90 minutes, thanks to the concise editing by Kate Hickey.

The film does look quite similar to recent working-class stories like Little Woods, Joe, Mud and Winter’s Bone. But what makes Holler stand out is that it is semi-autobiographical; based on Riegel’s life, which explains how the mise-en-scene feels intimate, lived-in and claustrophobic. In the hands of cinematographer Dustin Lane, it looks beautifully tactile (shot on Kodak 16mm film) and informs the conflicts and conditions of Ruth and Blaze perfectly.

The characters are distinct and memorable in how they fit in the world of the story and how they provide contrasting ideas as opposed to the character of Ruth. The character of Hark is shown to be a person who says he’s above the idea of education but in fact he is hinted to be afraid of the outside world while the character of Blaze is shown to be person who is deeply rooted to the town of Jackson that he does not find himself to be in the hope of leaving home.

The performances are stellar from across the board. Barden (who is best known for her work in the TV series The End of the F***ing World) delivers a fantastic lead performance as Ruth; delivering an understated sense of ferocity alongside her guarded demeanour that proves to be believable and sympathetic. Halper is convincing as the solid rock of the family; someone who has essentially paved the way for Ruth to go through for her to succeed. The supporting roles from Amelio, Adlon and Becky Ann Baker all add credibility to the film.

Throw in a satisfying ending that encapsulates the character arcs without resorting to melodrama and you have a great feature-length director debut from Riegel; a moving and emotionally rousing coming-of-age story. Recommended.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Holler is screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s digital program. Head to tiff.net for more details.

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