Review: The working-class elegy ‘Holler’ expresses a desire to escape with real grit

A young woman in a knit cap looks back over her right shoulder in the movie "Holler."
Jessica Barden in the movie “Holler.”
(IFC Films)

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Life is hard for teenage Ruth Avery (Jessica Barden), harder than it should be. She’s smart, selling homework for cash and stealing library books because her poor attendance record won’t let her check them out. Ruth is possessed of a tough, scrappy intuition honed by survival instincts, because Ruth and her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) are on their own. Alone. With mom (Pamela Adlon) detoxing in county jail, the siblings recycle cans for rent money, but it just doesn’t cut it. In their depressed Ohio town of Jackson, the former president intones, “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” on the radio, but the only talk of jobs here are the ones being outsourced overseas.

Nicole Riegel’s directorial debut “Holler” is an unflinching autobiographical work about what it takes to lift oneself out of this marginalized life. It’s not just the merits of intelligence or hard work for someone like Ruth, but a willingness to sacrifice the only things she has, everything she’s known.


Shot on Super 16mm on location, there’s a gritty realism to Riegel’s work, found in the film grain and the dark abandoned buildings where Ruth and Blaze strip copper wire from the ceilings, working as a part of an illegal scrap crew. Blaze has sent in Ruth’s college application, and her acceptance ignites the dream in both of them that she might escape. All they need is a little money, and so they turn to the menacing scrap dealer Hark (Austin Amelio). With him, they find companionship and the promise of profit, despite the inherent dangers.

English actress Barden has steadily built an impressive body of work in her career thus far, especially in indie films like “The New Romantic” and “Jungleland.” In “Holler,” she gives herself over completely to this world, melding into its rhythms and textures, becoming as authentic as the experiences it’s based on. She becomes the vessel to express Riegel’s quiet cri de coeur, which is not just yearning to escape one’s own circumstances but the absolute necessity of it.


Rated: R, for language and sexual references

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena