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Life is tough for teenage Ruth Avery (Jessica Barden), harder than it should be. She’s smart, sells homework for money, and steals library books because her low attendance rate doesn’t allow her to read them. Ruth has a hard, rambling intuition refined by survival instincts as Ruth and her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) are on their own. Alone. With mom (Pamela Adlon) rehab in the county jail, the siblings are recycling cans for rent money, but that’s not enough. In their depressed Ohio town of Jackson, the former president chants “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” on the radio, but we’re only talking about overseas outsourcing jobs here.
Holler, Nicole Riegel’s first director, is a flawless autobiographical work on what it takes to get 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 knows.
Shot in Super 16mm on location, there is a grainy realism in Riegel’s work, found in the film’s grain and dark abandoned buildings where Ruth and Blaze strip copper wire from ceilings, working as part of a illegal scrap team. Blaze has sent the application for admission to Ruth College, and her acceptance ignites the dream in them both that she might escape. All they need is a little cash, so they turn to menacing junkyard Hark (Austin Amelio). With it, they find company and the promise of profit, despite the inherent dangers.
English actress Barden has built an impressive body of work over the course of her career so far, especially in independent films like “The New Romantic” and “Jungleland”. In “Holler”, she surrenders completely to this world, blending into its rhythms and textures, becoming as authentic as the experiences on which it is based. It becomes the container to express Riegel’s cry of calm heart, which is not only the desire to escape his own circumstances, but the absolute necessity of it.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.