Adapted from her earlier 2016 short with which it shares its name, Nicole Riegel’s debut feature Holler is precisely the kind of low-key jewel one attends film festivals for, hoping to discover. Playing as part of the Toronto International Film Festival Industry Selects programme this year, it may lack the gloss, glitz and red carpet appeal of some of this year’s bigger name films, but Holler is an almost inexpressibly genuine film that with grace, confidence, empathy and compassion speaks to the present moment in ways far more profound – and moving – than many of its bigger budgeted peers.
The film is set in Southern Ohio, where the director herself grew up; describing the project as “semi-autobiographical”, Riegel tells the story of Ruth (Jessica Barden), who lives with her loving older brother as they desperately try and stay afloat financially after their mother has been imprisoned as a result of a painkiller addiction developed after a workplace injury. Barely tolerated by the staff at her school, despite their active discouragement Ruth is an unambiguously intelligent young woman. When she is accepted into college, her brother is determined to help Ruth find a new path ahead that will get her out of her predestined life of struggle in their dead-end town, destroyed by the collapse of the local manufacturing industry. This finds them joining a scrap metal crew, a decision that throws both Ruth and her brother’s entire futures into question.
Riegel has explicitly flagged Barbara Loden’s Wanda as an influence on her work, but of course comparisons to a more recent woman filmmaker – Debra Granik – are hard to avoid with Holler. Aside from the tone and social milieu in which both women work, Barden’s extraordinary performance recalls that of the equally talented Thomasin McKenzie in Granik’s Leave No Trace especially; working with these actors, both Granik and Riegel show an eye-opening capacity to understand the nuances of their young women characters, rendering complex an age-and-gender demographic far too often reduced to sexualized cliches into something far more complex and sophisticated.
Holler is a compelling, confident film about family, loyalty, hope and self-care, executed with a firm directorial vision and speaking with an authenticity and genuineness that is unambiguously refreshing. With its cast of non-professional supporting actors, however, this is much more than the story of one young woman and her brother, but rather a much bigger portrait of a community in crisis, watching itself collapse and being unable to do anything to stop it, and clinging to anything that will help keep them afloat.