Holler (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A harsh working-class daily life in Ohio

“Holler” is a little but haunting character drama about one ordinary working-class American girl who does deserve better than what her whole life has given her. While phlegmatically observing the daily struggles of her and several other characters around her, the movie slowly immerses us into their drab and harsh world which does not have much promise or future for everyone in their decaying town, and that is why it is touching to see when she becomes a bit more active for her life.

Set in one plain industrial town in Ohio, the movie, instantly puts us into another hard day of Ruth (Jessica Barden), an adolescent high school girl who has struggled a lot with her older brother Blaze (Gus Harper) for supporting themselves. Their mother Rhonda (Pamela Aldon) is absent due to being incarcerated in the county jail for her drug addiction problem, so it is Ruth and Blaze’s job to earn enough money for paying the rent for their house, but things have been pretty grim for not only them but also many others in the town. While what they earn at a local factory is not enough at all, they may get laid off along with many of their co-workers because of the local economic downturn, so they often collect scrap metals from here and there around the town and then sell them to a local scrap metal collector named Hark (Ausitn Amelio).

However, after being notified that they can be evicted from the house at any point, Linda and Blaze become more desperate than ever, and Hark happens to be able to offer them an opportunity to earn much more money within a shorter time. Along with Hark’s crew, they sneak into those old abandoned factories and buildings at night for stealing any valuable scrap metal inside them, and they certainly must be very careful of not only the local police but also any local competitor crew they might come across on the spot.

While well aware of the considerable risk of this new job, Blaze and Linda keep working for Hark, and Linda comes to impress their boss as a quick learner. She soon learns how to handle a number of tools including the one for cutting those metal plates, and we later get a wonderful scene where she intuitively uses a bit of her newly acquired knowledge in the middle of her first ‘field work’. The camera simply follows her viewpoint, but that is more than enough for us to discern what she is noticing and following step by step, and we come to see that she is indeed a girl too good and smart for the job.

As a matter of fact, Linda has been actually considering getting any opportunity for higher learning, but those opportunities seem to be beyond her reach for many reasons including the lack of money for college education. At one point later in the story, she attempts to persuade her high school class teacher to give her a chance, but the teacher does not hesitate to show his skepticism on that while recommending a lesser option instead.

However, Linda also hesitates on getting out of her small world. When Blaze helps her a bit via having her receiving an acceptance letter from some college outside their town, she is not so happy because she is still indecisive about what she really needs or wants, and her mother, who is quite bitter and resentful as still struggling with her addition problem, does not give Linda much help or support while looking miserable as usual.

Calmly and sensitively building up its characters along the story, the movie fills the screen with plain but palpable realism. From its main characters’ weary faces and the shabby but authentic details of their daily life, we come to sense more of how hard and difficult it is for them to live through another day of despair and hopelessness, and cinematographer Dustin Lane’s camera functions as an unseen observer for us while often closely following the characters on the screen. As we get to know them and their world more, we come to understand and empathize more with them, and we are not that shocked when one of the main characters becomes quite vicious to Linda and Blaze later in the story.

Above all, the movie is firmly anchored by the unadorned but undeniably powerful performance from Jessica Barden, a young British actress who previously played supporting roles in a number of notable films including “Far from the Madding Crowd” (2015) and “The Lobster” (2015). Besides effortlessly immersing herself into the mundane background, Barden subtly let us sense her character’s inner resilience behind her character’s rather detached façade, and we come to root for her character more when she eventually decides what is more important for her. Although Barden has been relatively unknown, the movie demonstrates well to us her considerable talent and presence, and I can only hope that the movie will boost her career as much as Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010) did Jennifer Lawrence’s.

In case of several other main performers in the film, they are equally convincing on the whole. While Gus Harper has his own moving moments as an older brother who has always cared about his younger sister’s welfare and future, Austin Amelio is as seedy as required by his supporting role, and Becky Ann Baker and Pamela Adlon are also effective in their respective substantial roles.

“Holler” is the first feature film directed by director/writer Nicole Riegel, who previously made the 2016 short film of the same name from which the movie was developed. I heard that the story is considerably influenced by her own life experiences, and, as far as I can see from the overall result, she did a commendable job of presenting a vivid slice of American life with care and respect. In short, this is a much better alternative to Ron Howard’s bland misfire “Hillbilly Elegy” (2020), and I wholeheartedly urge you to check out this admirable debut work as soon as possible.

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