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SFFILM FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! The cards are dealt differently to each player. Some open with a winning hand and others should just fold…but there’s always a chance of winning. In Nicole Riegel’s Holler, young teen Ruth (Jessica Barden) was dealt a horrendous hand.

One would think a college acceptance letter would be cause for celebration, but not for Ruth. This day, Ruth and her brother Blaze (Austin Amelio) visit their mother Rhonda (Pamela Adlon) in court-ordered rehab…or prison. While Rhonda is in rehab indefinitely, Ruth and Blaze are forced to fend for themselves. College would be great for Ruth, but her guidance counselor advises her that it’s not worth racking up an impossible amount of student loans for a college education.

Brother Blaze is determined to help Ruth escape their depressing southern Ohio town. Along with working at the local plant, Blaze and Ruth work for the scrapyard owner, Hark (Austin Amelio), who also provides the pair a place to live. Ruth learns the skills for metal scraping, catches some vital accounting errors, and becomes involved in breaking and entering to steal good scrap.

“…a young woman who is going to survive and find a way out of her circumstances on her own terms.”

What I love about Holler is that the story is less about Ruth’s narrative. The film is about Ruth and Blaze as a family—fighting, fighting, and fighting for a better life. Jessica Barden absolutely shines as Ruth. Last seen in Pink Skies Ahead as a young woman struggling with severe anxiety, Jessica is this amazing new talent with a long career ahead of her as she takes on riskier and emotionally demanding roles. She brings a fierce determination to Ruth, a young woman who is going to survive and find a way out of her circumstances on her own terms.

Countering Barden is Gus Halper as Blaze. He’s the perfect ying to Barden’s yang. Blaze knows that Ruth has the potential to get out of town and have a normal and successful life. He sacrifices everything for Ruth, including his mental health. I love this constant tension between the two because they essentially have the exact same goal, and they don’t see it.

Holler is a character story. Yes, there’s a beginning and an end, but the characters are the reason to watch. No one plays the stereotype—not even Pamela Adlon as the mom in rehab, nor Austin Amelio as the very flawed owner of the scrapyard. Both roles we’ve seen countless times before, but writer/director Nicole Riegel brings such richness to all of her characters.

I’ll end with the cinematography. Riegel brings out the beauty of not only the struggling towns along the Rust Belt but even beauty to a scrapyard. The cinematography pretty much represents the story. Holler shows there is beauty everywhere—if you choose to look for it. It also shows the power of independent filmmaking to tell incredible stories on sheer will and desire to tell stories.

Holler screened at the 2021 SFFILM Film Festival.

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