2010’s Winter’s Bone was a surprise Sundance success that depicted the poverty-stricken community of middle America. Debra Granik’s debut feature made Jennifer Lawrence a star and earned four Oscar nominations. Other films have tried to replicate that film to varying degrees, and writer/director Nicole Riegel tries her hand with Holler.
Jessica Barden stars as Ruth, a smart young woman on the verge of high school graduation. When she receives her acceptance into college, she and her brother Blaze (Gus Harper) join an illegal scrap metal crew in order to get the money she needs to further herself.
Ruth and Blaze periodically visit their drug addicted mother (Pamela Adlon) in the local jail, while relying on the kindness of their family friend Linda (a wonderfully warm Becky Ann Baker) to make ends meet. While all those around them struggle to stay employed and keep the lights on, they run into Hank (Austin Amelio), who gives them both an opportunity to make money scraping.
Though the pair begin to make real money and connect with their community, Ruth becomes torn with the increasing dangers of her job and her desire to get out of her town and make something of herself.
The political undertones are apparent throughout the film, though mostly implied. While factories are shutting down and the scrapping team shows up to forage for supplies, we hear audio of President Trump promising jobs over the radio. There are issues of opioid abuse, an uncaring education system, sexual proclivity, student loan debt, and the cycle of poverty that will never seem to be broken. Unfortunately, all these issues are viewed through a strictly white lens, with no real attention paid to any character of color.
Everything is framed through the experiences of Ruth, and Barden steps up to the task. She is shown to be intelligent, but is not wise beyond her years. She acts like the 17 year-old she is and doesn’t have any grand proclamations, rather keeps everything boiling inside and just tries to do her steady best. Barden’s eyes convey an old soul without the requisite cliches to go along with it. Barden should prove to be a formidable actress in the coming years.
Riegel has something to say about the forgotten members of the lower class, but what she says comes across as condescending or too on the nose. The film is presented as a chance for Ruth to escape, but doesn’t give a conclusion to anyone else in the film. No other character is important enough to matter in the film, despite how much we care about Ruth. At 90 minutes, despite a straightforward conclusion, the film feels incomplete.
The shadow of Winter’s Bone lingers heavy over Holler and while Riegel and Barden try their best, they can never overcome the inevitable comparisons to the more superior film.