There can be something so tremendously exhilarating and electrifying about a directorial debut. There’s a vibrancy, a freshman energy, that whistles throughout an outstanding cinematic introduction, one that announces itself with an early presence and an urgent identity that leaves your head spinning at the idea of what is set to come, imagining what movies will arrive from that filmmaker in a future that’s hopefully not too distant.
When I started Holler, the first feature film written and directed by Nicole Riegel and based on her short film of the same name, I had this ringing feeling. Its sense of place, warm authenticity, and bittersweet emotional core were all burning bright just as this homey small-town indie began. Aided by a bristling, genuine lead performance from Jessica Barden (The Lobster, The End of the F****** World), I was already feeling energized and enthusiastic about the wondrous possibility that I might be watching one of the finest debuts of this year’s highly unorthodox Toronto International Film Festival.
Alas, while this strong debut doesn’t fumble, Holler never fully reaches its potential either. While it’s a confident and compelling directorial debut filled with stark promise and vivid integrity, Riegel’s frustratingly familiar script stalls what should otherwise be an exceptional and exciting coming-of-age film.
Though its themes of finding yourself and forging your own identity in (and possibly outside) of your run-down hometown aren’t necessarily new ideas, Holler‘s favoring of cliched, well-worn story tropes prevents it from achieving its own clear-spoken sense of self. Instead, for all the great lengths Riegel goes to cement her own status as a gifted first-time filmmaker, her screenplay can’t help but harken back to many other movies in this vein and genre — some better and some worse, admittedly, but this sadly undermines the investment of the film’s triumphant first half. By the time Holler‘s less-engaging second half comes along, you’re left with a solid, very impressive debut, but one that could’ve been a true great.
The story follows Ruth (Barden), a high school senior trapped in an impoverished Ohio town who barely gets by with her high school dropout brother, Blaze (Gus Halper), by selling scrap to local dealers, most notably the super shady Hark (Austin Amelio). Looking to make money for her college education, particularly with her drug-addicted mother (Pamela Adlon) barely in the picture, this resourceful young woman finds herself and her brother joining Hark’s handy crewmen and making extra money through some, perhaps, less-than-legal means. From there, particularly as their misdeeds continue to weigh on this woman’s conscience, Ruth must make some tough decisions about what’s best regarding her own future — assuming she can find a future away from this worn-down industrial town.
Where Riegel often succeeds is in capturing the raw essence of this Ohio locale. It’s very rugged and hard-knocked, but Riegel finds its blemished beauty without sacrificing any authenticity or organic melancholy. The movie isn’t shy about its politics. Donald Trump’s false claims of restoring economic prosperity blares over footage of our ravished, decrepit town; a shell of its former self. Trump boldly, emptily promises “jobs, jobs jobs!” —words that echo weightlessly across hollowed streets. You ultimately can’t trust anyone but yourself to make your own way. The only way to live out the American Dream is to recognize that it’s dead and build your own path.
Riegel’s visual communication is starkly vivid and rather rich in its look at these poor, rough-and-tumble characters. Her lens shows pity, but it doesn’t drown in it. The resilience of our lead character is matched by Riegel’s own persistence to show her challenging-but-determined journey. Her character arc, while routine from a narrative standpoint, doesn’t feel false, and that is also thanks to Barden’s impressive, forthright performance. She brings out the realism and believability of this character, even when her script falls into overworked beats and wonky story mechanics. When they’re not establishing the story but rather getting us immersed in this character’s limited, yet open-eyed worldview, that’s where the movie very much excels.
Alas, while its perspective is keenly realized, it’s hard not to think of all the other indie movies of late which have come in Winter’s Bone‘s wake about poor girls in tough towns trying to make their way. It almost feels like a right-of-passage at this point. That’s not to suggest that the movie’s intentions ever seem insincere. Rather, it just falls so consistently into formula that the realism that was so key in its earlier, better moments gets muted over the course of its underwhelming third act. It’s a shame because Holler is a promising debut, teasing a strong career for Riegel. But when it comes time for her second, third, fourth, and hopefully more films, here’s hoping she finds herself as a screenwriter, because she clearly has found her sense of self as a director. But in this tale of anguish, fiscal ruin, and various other forms of dismay and woe, the future can still look bright.