First Time Director Wrings Strong Tragic Empathy from Desperate Teen Scrapers

by Tony Rutherford , HNN Entertainment Editor
First Time Director Wrings Strong Tragic Empathy from  Desperate Teen Scrapers

Prepare for a life of repeated hopelessness ---- eviction after eviction, plant closings, visiting mom at the County Jail. That's a bleakly told, often with available light only ensuring  dark, shadowy characters in a string of "nothing else but" choices for sleeping, eating, and surviving.  


Ruth's (Jessica Barden) family teeters on the brink of extinction. Mom had an accident and lost her industrial job surviving an injury through a physician generously prescribing "pain pills," leading to addition, criminal behavior and a stint in jail. Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) endures visits from Ruth and son, Blaze (Gus Halper), who some viewers may remember from "Cold Pursuit."  

The county lock up in Jackson, Ohio seems a bit casual. Prisoners wear their own clothes and graffiti such as "Praise the Lord" remains on walls to remind inmates of potential salvation. Shot on 16mm film, the production has an "aged" appearance though its a 21st Century reality. 

Director Nicole Riegel's first feature brims with the essence of an  autobiographical "been there, done that" nearly true snips of growing up struggling in a small town missing with one exception moments of teen trivial adventures and pursuits. Jackson represents the Appalachian corridor where above poverty line jobs are few. Riegel paints modest neighborhoods, a few factories, a school, hospital and a iconic smokestack. 

Barden *the End of the Fu****g World") squares off with Halper as he send a college registration form for his sis and she's accepted at the school. Working to pay tuition is a risk --- do you want to go from books to book or books to work, where  a once thriving industrial venue offered a "where to have a life" choice. She fights the prospect of leaving yet sneaks into the scrap business where they work to use a computer. Her decision has not been made, but a journey into the quasi-legal scrap business (where abandoned scrap turns into stolen copper wiring) demonstrates she could "make it" as a scraper, but as she and her brother experience more scrapes  deeper into the criminal side, it's obvious Barden's not comfortable dumpster diving and metal stripper for life.

"Holler" like its grubby, nearly destitute characters, relies on "observations" not slinky special effects. Director Riegel (perhaps an inception of Ruth) grew up poor and joined the army before her chance at small budget filmmaking. Her establishing shots ranging from a plumb stray scrapyard cat, plundering well filled  junk yards, stealing cans for gas money , streetlights strobe-flashing overhead as a trucker and others met with a standard light every block on a vastly empty two lane blacktop. 

Hark (Austin Amelio), the junkyard owner, has wire tough realness as the chain smoking hustler echoes the zombie survival and killing skills (The Walking Dead," "Fear of the Walking Dead") that crossover into  harrowing scavenger skills that  by now seems "job related" but actually have life and death risks. He's a self made entrepreneur in a tough, edgy business for which he's energized by impromptu dangers.

Backed by the Sundance Institute and a favorite at two major festivals, "Holler" has the feel of a documentary, but the brother/sister relationship exposes roots of the dying formerly middle class community. It's evident in a scene where the dark haired Barden rejects a trade school I.T. offer (that would leave her still in Jackson) for an anything but assured future. 

Reviews have been strong: "We need more stories like Holler, films unafraid to push the spotlight on the failures and shortcomings of our country and community placed on the youth - on the future."  Or, " A film that is not afraid to shy away from the harsh truths of the world, and dive head first into exploring them."

The young people forced to leave reminds me of my returning uncle's from the service, more often than not, seeking "better" in larger towns. A brainy one scored an accountant job with GE in Cleveland. Happy years of small elegant trophy purchases skidded into alcohol and near homelessness once the plant cut back. His return "home" brought "labor" positions of which he was not physically qualified. He was found dead (natural causes?) on his approaching elderly sister's couch. 

Some made the military a career, others, entered civil service, and out of twenty some , one or two succeeded by stepping into upper middle class status due to the then unusual  working wife. 

Rigel provided insight to her perspective for "Holler" and the poor images that generally stereotype the screen Appalachians in a recent Moviemaker article:

"For most of cinema’s history in America, people with money have told the stories of those without money. Those stories continue to color our collective perceptions.

Holler would be different. It would be told independently and by one of their own. The title itself serves two purposes. A holler can be a back road, slang for hollows that are well-known in Appalachia. Secondly, a holler can be a yell or battle cry. That’s exactly what Holler is. A battle cry for a population that is usually depicted as old, white, male, and backward. In reality it is a diverse region filled with wealth and poverty, white and Black, women and men, young and old, queer and straight, and it is deeply misunderstood.

It is misunderstood because few from the hollers find themselves behind the camera for the very reasons shown in my film. "