Growing up poor and desperate in small-town Ohio

Ruth (Jessica Barden) and her brother, Blaze (Gus Halper), struggle to stay afloat in the Ohio-made drama Holler. (Photos courtesy of IFC Films)

By Richard Ades

Some have compared Holler to Winter’s Bone, as both depict a desperate life as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. Then again, lots of flicks have been influenced by that 2010 classic. The flick that Holler most reminds me of is Annie Silverstein’s modest 2020 release, Bull.

In both cases, the young heroine has been left with heavy responsibilities because her mother is in jail. And in each, she finds herself attracted to a man who’s eager to lead her into a life of crime.

Made and set in small-town Ohio, the new film centers on Ruth (Jessica Barden), who lives with older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) in a house without running water because they can’t afford to pay the utility bills. Ruth is on the brink of high school graduation, and Blaze is determined to give her a chance at a brighter future by pushing her off to college. Ruth refuses, however, being unwilling to leave her brother when he has few prospects for employment.

Then the two are offered a job by Hark (Austin Amelio), who runs a shady recycling business. The job pays well, but it involves the illegal and potentially dangerous task of collecting aluminum, copper and other scrap materials from factories that have closed down.

Much to her protective brother’s chagrin, Ruth seems to take to the work and, worse yet, shows signs of taking to Hark. Is her future doomed before it has a chance to get started?

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Holler is the feature debut of writer/director Nicole Riegel, who sets the unsentimental (and reportedly semi-autographical) tale in her hometown of Jackson, Ohio. The picture it paints of daily life is not likely to turn Jackson into a tourist destination.

Like rural areas all over the Midwest and Appalachia, the town is cursed by a lack of work and a rampant drug problem—the latter being represented by Ruth’s mom, Rhonda (Pamela Adlon), who ran afoul of the law after becoming addicted to pain killers. Ruth is fortunate to have the support of her brother and a kind family friend, Linda (Becky Ann Baker), but the clear message is that her only hope for a happy future is to escape.

British actor Barden leads the competent cast with her scrappy portrayal of Ruth, and director of photography Dustin Lane captures the drama of the girl’s life with gritty (if sometimes frustratingly dark) images. That helps to compensate for a script that is a bit predictable and more than a bit vague on a key question: Namely, how can college even be an option for Ruth when she has no way of paying the costs that routinely leave middle-class kids in debt?

Like Bull, Holler also has an ending that will dissatisfy some viewers, though for different reasons. While the earlier film left things largely unsettled, this one tries too hard to tie up loose ends. Still, it’s an impressive debut with an important message, even if that message is delivered imperfectly.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Holler (rated R) opens June 11 at select theaters and VOD outlets.