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Holler (Nicole Riegel, 2021)

Jessica Barden as Ruth in Holler

You learn real fast not to trust Hollywood when growing up in the Appalachian region. The Barbara Kopple’s (director of Harlan County, U.S.A.) of the world are few and far between when the more common interpretation is the toothless mockery of the “uneducated” and poor of movies like Hillbilly Elegy (2020). Even in the likes of films that are now ancient and have nothing to do with the region you’re likely to find a type of ignorance about common blue-collar people; such as the buck-toothed, farm squawking of Gene Kelly in Summer Stock (1950). If you grow up loving movies in that area you’re seen as something of an oddball, because the distrust of the motion picture business runs deep. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Nicole Riegel, director of the great new film Holler, states that she was nervous about going back to her home of Southern Ohio to make a movie because she thought everyone in the area would view her as an outsider who showed up to point her camera at a bunch of “hillbillies”. She goes on to state that Appalachia is an area with poor depiction, particularly for women. Having grown up with a similar background I can state with resolute clarity that it was refreshing to watch her new movie buck all the trends that are typical of filmmaking about the area.

Holler follows Ruth (Jessica Barden), a young girl living in a dying manufacturing town, who may have found a way to prosper after getting accepted to college, but the only catch is that she has no way to pay the tuition. Ruth’s mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) is in jail on a drug possession charge and trying to kick a habit to pain-killers, and while her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) has done his best to support her he can’t find the work necessary to pay his landlord let alone make his sister’s dream come true. Riegel’s film opens with Ruth and Blaze foraging in trash looking for bags of soda pop bottles and empty cans they can exchange for pocket cash. Riegel’s camera thrusts forward, jostling and hurried to keep up with Ruth who is running like hell to not get caught for what will amount to little more than ten bucks when all is said and done at the scrap yard. This initial pursuit of the camera and the intimate, grainy 16mm film stock that was used immediately endows Holler’s images with a sense of place and personality. This scene also doubles as a foreshadowing event for Ruth, who is both running in pursuit of her future, and away from the potential incarceration that would follow in the wake of meeting Hark (Austin Amelio) the scrap metal manager who knows a thing or two about ripping copper off the walls of empty buildings in the dead of night.

The way Hark sees it all those old factories are going to waste, and if no one is gonna fill ‘em up with jobs he can strip them for himself, and build a future out of the lies that big corporations told to the workforce. He isn’t wrong and his mantra of building something out of nothing is seductive for Ruth and Blaze who’ve got little to their name except a home they can’t pay for any longer. Austin Amelio is particularly great in his small role as Hark with an intuitive masculine charm that feels appropriate for the area. He plays a character type of a guy who has always managed to win, but by the dedication of his own hand. The power fantasy of being the only man in town who has seemingly figured out how to game the system is intoxicating in what it promises on the basis of his prosperity and his sexual power. When Ruth and her brother start working for him a complication arises for the young girl that has ripple effects for many women who grew up in Appalachia, and that is the promise of a potential love interest or the benefits of a college education. Ruth becomes interested in Hark because he has a Luciferian quality where he can offer the girl everything she wants, and at a price that almost seems reasonable because Amelio is charming in the common sense way that he exerts control. He almost feels safe, but he’s demanding and stubborn and some part of Ruth can see that beneath the charm. Riegel allows this potentially problematic relationship to blossom in faint registers that’s woozy in what it suggests, until the part of the brain that knows it’s wrong snaps into place.

While also being honest in its forthright depiction of Appalachian people and the struggles they face Riegel is also operating in a mode of doomed film noir. She casts her film in moody shadows that are lit beautifully in their compositional elegance while also bringing the inevitable violence to the surface. It’s almost a gender flipped provocation as well, because the seductive femme fatale is replaced with a hard-nosed man bringing the girl into the cover of the night. Riegel doesn’t moralize or get caught up on the poverty stricken sorrow of the area or its plot mechanics either, but rather, allows Ruth’s venture into copper thievery to be something near euphoric when everything goes right. There’s a beautiful section after Ruth finishes her first gig with Hark where she sits in the back of a pick-up truck among all the junk and she looks skyward at the lights flickering across the highway as if it were a falling star she could wish upon. There’s a desperation to her actions throughout, but they create a fulcrum for excitement that’s satisfying to watch build, but as is common with the genre things don’t always go as planned. This isn’t to say that the film is formulaic at all, because Riegel’s specificity in capturing the oft neglected area gives the genre a new and dynamic feeling. It’s likely the best modern noir since Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010).

Holler is also invested in saying something about how people like Donald Trump can snake their way into the Appalachia’s and the South. The Trump Presidency and the lies he sold to the working class are all over this movie as an ambient soundtrack. His voice echoes out of the radio, on the television and on billboards, but the director is smart enough to realize that Trump is not a lone boogeyman she can project into and find an answer. She’s more interested in the total neglect of the area that strips it of its agency in little ways, and this is apparent in the failing job-market, the criminal justice system and in the schooling. When Ruth turns in a finals paper a week late her teacher tells her that he can’t look at it, and only does so after Ruth pleads with him that if she doesn’t pass Biology then she can’t go to college. The teacher then tries to have a heart to heart with the girl about the types of people who are allowed to go to college and he advises her not to, because the Student loan debt would be so financially crippling that she’d never be able to recover. Even her mother tells her that her people aren’t “College people” and going off to chase that would be a fools errand. Ruth’s hands are thus tied to the area through no fault of her own, and makes the criminal activity she takes part in, as morally righteous as a hungry man stealing a loaf of bread. 

There’s this wonderfully knotty complication at hand for Ruth of falling on the sword of your own future to escape the generational expectations of family and region. This was a personal tale for Riegel, who stated in that same Vanity Fair interview, that she couldn’t wait to move away from home to become a movie director, and that 1:1 ratio of care for the character, and the reality of the filmmaker has resulted in a movie that feels like a tonic for all those women who grew up in the Appalachian region and wanted more, but were expected to never toe the line of rebellion. The sincere application of humanist form on the part of Riegel’s characters has allowed for them to retain a dignity despite their problems. Hollywood almost never has time for the common people of that area, who are dressed up in the woeful stereotypes of poverty and poor breeding by A-List actors, who arrive at their characters with a skepticism and a layer of uncaring that they unconsciously endorse. In this independent movie movie by Nicole Riegel I have found something like home in its earnest determination of escape on the part of Ruth who is coupled with the strength of the Appalachian people that raised her. With Riegel we have the arrival of a new talent whom I hope will continue to blossom, and with Holler, a film of significance, because it dares to look without judgment at a sub-section of people that the United States consistently belittles and refuses to learn about or help. There’s something bittersweet about needing to be as far away from home as possible to live the life you require, and with Holler I hope that audiences will begin to understand why that is necessary for the dreamers of the Appalachian mountains, and why the forced departure of its people who long for more is as tragic as it is liberating.

Holler is now available in virtual cinemas and on Video on Demand.

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