Born in a small town: ‘Holler’

Trying to understand the mind — the pathology in many cases — of Trump voters has broken journalism since the former president descended the escalator in Trump Tower six years ago. The usual Sunday magazine cover story: reporters visit a diner in Connellsville, Pennsylvania or wherever to talk to those voters about Pfizer boosters as if two sides existed.

Holler avoids the pitfall of meretricious objectivity. Nicole Riegel’s terrific debut depicts the crumpled dreams of seventeen-year-old Ruth (Jessica Barden), who resorts to selling scrap to get by. She’s expected to quash her college dreams because, to quote her sensitive mother Rhonda, recovering from heroin addiction at the county jail, “We’re not college people.”

“The big bad guy in Holler is the system that all of these characters, including Hark and the teachers, are a part of,” Riegel said in an interview. “And the reason that it’s sort of faceless is because those people would never visit my hometown.”

Shot in 16mm, Holler has the look of a Barbara Kopple documentary (Riegel could’ve titled it Jackson, Ohio, U.S.A.). It pulls off a neat trick: it avoids the emptily pictorial without resorting to Ameri-indie realism. There’s an intimacy to the way Rieger and cinematographer Dustin Lane frame the characters outdoors or at the frozen food factory where Ruth’s mom Rhonda worked before trouble started; we don’t eavesdrop so much as catch them during unprivileged moments. When Ruth and older bro Blaze (Gus Harper) let the coverage of a Trump rally on the car radio play softly (insofar as that’s possible) in one of the first scenes, it establishes a background, a context; it’s not a naturalist gesture.

Rieger trusts her audience. Holler mostly eschews exposition. Ruth’s being chased after in the first sequence — why? She has stolen aluminum cans — what for? To keep the gas on in a house otherwise without electricity or running water, she needs easy money. Scrap yard owner Hark (Austin Amelio of The Walking Dead, an apt description of this town’s residents) won’t give her a decent quote. But she and Blaze want better, he invites them to join his crew stealing — well, pilfering it on occasion from abandoned plants may not count as theft, to be fair — copper wiring from businesses; Hark says they sell it to China “straight from the yard.”

Their uneasy relationship fuels most of Holler‘s tensions. Rieger does not stint from depicting the sexual tensions between a high schooler and older man. In the film’s best shot scene, Ruth and Hark skate in a rink the size of a living room while Blaze, on to them, glowers. It isn’t merely how Rieger lets the scene play; it’s the details, for example the concession stand devoid of pizza or, well, any concessions for sale. Or the worry and love in Linda’s expression. Rhonda’s best friend, Linda is about the only older person who looks after Ruth and Blaze; as Linda, the wonderful Becky Ann Baker understands that in many scenarios showing concern is more effective than love.

Ruth gets away, maybe. Driving on roads over those beautiful, sinister rolling hills, she’s as momentarily unstuck as a character in a Nebraska-era Springsteen song. Whatever she does it’s a cinch she’ll make out better than if she’d stayed in that unidentified town. Meanwhile its residents age, wither, perish to the accompaniment of a clanging voice yelling jobs, jobs, jobs.


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