The precariat of America’s Rust Belt come under scrutiny in writer/director Nicole Riegel’s feature debut, Holler, a fleshing out of her short of the same name.
It’s a kitchen-sinker, in most respects, which means a story set in a blue-collar/working class world where the odds are stacked against a central protagonist who may or may not get out of Dodge.
Ruth is a smart girl in a town that’s falling apart. Her mother is a junkie awaiting either rehab or jail, whichever comes up first, it would seem. Her brother Blaze is clever enough to know that his sister has something he doesn’t and so it’s imperative that she go to college and get away from this once-prosperous place that’s now closing down bit by bit. The family home is plastered with eviction notices, Ruth’s schoolwork is being neglected. It’s not a case of it going either way. All the indicators suggest Ruth’s future is going to be just like her present: with her brother selling metal to the local scrapyard.
Except Ruth really is smart. Smart enough to have good backchat. When her brother worries out loud that Ruth is going to sleep with some local guy, get pregnant and end up stuck, Ruth responds with a “Trust me, talking to the guys round here is all the birth control I need.”
The scrap metal, like all the manufacturing jobs and manufacturing companies before it, is heading in the direction of China. Everyone understands what’s going on, but no one has the power to stop it. On the radio, as the film opens, we hear the voice of Donald Trump and his three magic words: “Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.” This is one of those Trump towns. Riegel does not stop to say “and this is why people voted for him”, and nor does she ask “and what good did that all do?” – it’s just a statement of where things are, or more accurately were. Since this film was shot Trump has been replaced by Biden and one stimulus program has been replaced with another.
The scrapyard is a metaphor as well as a real place, and the guy who runs it, Hark (Austin Amelio), also has a metaphorical aspect. He’s the smart, self-motivated blue-collar guy happy to swim in a shallow pool, open minded (not the same as liberal) enough to be able to spot an opportunity and with just enough education and political nous to know which way the wind is blowing. The American entrepreneurial spirit, alive and well though feeling the pressure.
This entrepreneurialism has led Hark into a new area – stealing metal (copper in particular) from shuttered local factories where there’s a lot of it. Ruth and Blaze become part of his ninja team of scavengers. Until, one night, it all goes a lot wrong and Ruth realises exactly what’s at stake…The End.
There’s a one, two, three aspect to kitchen-sinkers. Meet the person, experience their dilemma… and then watch as they make their choice. In its determination to “show it like it is” Holler tends to mute its dramatic potential. Sometimes the drabness of Ruth’s life bleeds across into the film.
Riegel and DP Dustin Lane shoot flat, for maximum “like it is” effect and the cast is strong. Jessica Barden, teenage acne visible, is entirely plausible, likeable and subtle – you’d also not guess she’s a Brit – and Austin Amelio is eye-catching as smart but slightly lairy Hark. Along with Gus Halper’s Blaze and Becky Ann Baker’s Linda, who works at the local factory and once upon a time might have been a union organiser, he’s what the film is really about. The rust belt, the hollowing out of life chances for a certain segment of society after well paid blue-collar jobs evaporate. Ruth has the opportunity to get away. Hark, Blaze and Linda do not.
Ruth’s mother, the junkie Rhonda, is another possible destination – the under-educated woman blaming everyone around her for her predicament. Sure she’s been played a bad hand, but she’s also played it badly and is bringing everyone round her (her kids, most obviously) down with her.
In a world of seismic flows of capital and mass production, there’s still room to blame the victim, it seems, and Holler could not be accused of bleeding-heart liberalism. Whether you’ll enjoy blame being parcelled out in that way probably depends on your politics.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021