' ' Cinema Romantico: Holler

Tuesday, September 07, 2021


Filmed in 16mm and set in a dead-end Rust Belt town, “Holler” sometimes feels like a forgotten indie from the 1990s, the sort that sparked innumerable Sundance bidding wars. That’s not to suggest it feels hoary or outdated. To the contrary, these similarities add an innate power, as if the problems of those movies a couple decades prior have only gotten worse. Indeed, as “Holler” opens, the teenage Ruth (Jessica Barden) is running down a grey alley carrying a trash bag in each hand, occasionally looking over her shoulder. She and her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) are pilfering cans from dumpsters to sell to a local scrap yard. But you don’t need the context for the shot to resonate. Simply in the image itself, it looks like she’s fleeing, just with nowhere to go.

Ruth’s mother, Rhonda (Pamela Adlon), is in a drug treatment program in prison, leaving Blaze as her caretaker. Money is tight. They use water out of big plastic containers, an evocative signal that the home’s water has been shut off, the kind of detail which feels possibly borrowed from director Nicole Riegel’s own life, given the professed autobiographical nature of her film. Eviction notices keep coming, which Ruth merely tucks under an empty flowerpot, though one day a college acceptance letter comes too. Turns out, Blaze, in act of brotherly love, applied on her behalf. He’s ecstatic, she’s unsure, and their argument on the porch causes the next-door neighbor to reprimand them, a throwaway scene that nevertheless humorously conveys how joy in this town is so hard to sustain.

The question driving “Holler” isn’t whether Ruth wants to go to college but whether she and Blaze can afford it. That’s the question a teacher at school asks too, sitting Ruth down and encouraging her to take an information technology course rather than incurring so much student debt, a persuasive argument against America as a meritocracy. No golden scholarships lie in wait, either, at the end of the plot’s rainbow. Ruth needs money, but making money is tough in a dying industrial town where the lone industry – a frozen foods packaging plant – is perpetually under rumor of being closed down. It’s what forces Ruth and Blaze to hook up with Hark (Austin Amelio), owner of the scrap yard where they shill their cans, in a nebulously illegal scheme where they scrap metal from abandoned buildings and factories, sometimes not so abandoned at all. 

Another movie might have simply presumed Ruth’s intelligence, but “Holler” finds unique ways to demonstrate just how little she’s cut out for this town even as it threatens to subsume her. An early scene, in which she is caught pilfering a book from the library, suggests why she might be just as good at pilfering piping and copper wiring. When they enter one building, Riegel cuts between point-of-view shots of Ruth, following the wiring along the wall and ceiling, and her face, denoting not just an intelligence everyone else in the crew doesn’t have but an enthusiasm for figuring things out. This also suggests the sort of balance that Barden brings to the role, a quietly fierce intelligence mixed with indignation from the ignorance around her and unpredictable flashes of joy that elevate the role, and the movie itself, from the sort of one-note wallowing often afflicting similar indies. 

If this storyline heads toward a predictable conclusion, sucking out some of the drama, Riegel’s larger dramatic metaphor still resonates. Hark deems this abandoned buildings of precious piping as modern day goldmines, a telling reference conjuring up a not entirely accurate image of the 1850s gold rush, how the American promise stretched from sea to ostensible shining sea. In “Holler”, that promise is essentially eating itself from the inside-out, these characters turning around and cutting deals with the Chinese for what they have scrapped, selling off the remnants of the American Dream just to survive.

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