Jackson, Ohio. A city only a relatively short 90 minutes south of the rapidly growing capital in Columbus, but seemingly so far away. In Jackson reside many people past, present, and future like Ruth (Jessica Barden), a high school senior stuck between a rock and a hard place. She scraps day to day alongside her older brother, Blaze (Gus Halper), who like many works at the local food factory, which is on a ticking clock towards a shutdown. They have no parental influence; their mother, Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) a recovering, jailed addict.
Although rebellious, she is extremely intelligent and receives acceptance into college. This should be her ticket out of the declining city, though the cost of higher education makes this prospect more of a pipe dream—and that is before getting the degree. The other option of remaining in Jackson doesn’t sound fruitful either, and it is an option Blaze does not want to see her settle for. So, the siblings resort to a sketchy way to make coin, stripping dilapidated buildings that once served as employment hubs for metal under the direction of psuedo-entrepreneuer Hark (Austin Amelio).
Count me in anytime Ohio is prominently featured, and especially when shot on location like Holler happens to be. Without the authentic location factor, this is a competent movie that doesn’t quite leave an imprint like it does in its current state. Quietly making its debut during TIFF and the Deauville American Film Festival in September of 2020, it is now receiving a wider release and stands as another overall win for the small but mighty IFC studio.
Holler is a personal story for first-time director Nicole Riegel. She herself is a native of the city this film is shot in and shares similarities to Ruth. Even without knowing that fact, she envelops the entire feature from beginning to end with an attention to detail and a commitment to atmosphere creation. Shooting this in the dead ass end of winter contributes to a constant hopelessness feeling, coated in a blue/gray tint and slight grain. And yet, Riegel doesn’t shy away from the idea that as depressing as this town can be, there is a real community that keeps most people invested in one another.
This version of Holler is an expansion of a 2016 short Riegel wrote and directed. As described, the setting of Jackson is the strongest aspect of her expanded script, a character in itself. That is not to say that the rest of her screenplay is faulty; it is rooted on a simple-but-interesting mystery question of whether Ruth will leave behind her hometown or grin and bear life within it forever. But sometimes, since this such a Ruth-heavy story, other characters and their journeys are pushed to the background, which minimizes investment particularly in the final act when Riegel’s script starts to get into light thriller/romance territory.
Clearly, Holler is not an ensemble film. However, it is an impressive lead vehicle for the rising Barden. The British actress is closer to 30 than 20, but her playing a middle American young adult never feels like a stretch. Her eyes are extremely communicative, as if she simultaneously knows everything and nothing at all. They tell her inner turmoil when words do not. To compare it with another recent release that was primarily a one-person vehicle, think The Assistant with Julia Garner – not quite the same subject matter or gravitas heavy performance, but a notch right under it.
Big on setting and a formidable star turn, a meatier story would probably put Holler in many year end lists. Nevertheless, it is a good exhibit for Barden and Riegel’s developing talents.
Photo credits go to impawards.com, awfj.org, cherrydavis.org, and variety.com.
For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com.
Feel free to follow me @MrJackMarkSon.