Much of the first part of the movie is set in three main places: the ramshackle home where Blaze acts as temporary legal caretaker to his younger sister (the water was turned off before the start of the story and we never see it being turned on); the county jail where the siblings visit Rhonda; and a local frozen meal factory where Rhonda used to work, and where her best friend Linda is still employed, although there are rumors that layoffs are coming. Linda, a hard, wise woman with a wry smile, is played by the great character actress Becky Ann Baker—it’s so great to see her, Adlon, Amelio and other superb, lesser-known actors being given believable, real-world people to inhabit. Their more colorful work is anchored to the lead performances by Halper (of “Cold Pursuit” and TV’s “Madam Secretary”) and Barden (of Channel 4’s “The End of the F*****g World”), which are more quiet, reactive and internal.
Once Ruth and Blaze join Hark’s scrapper team, the emphasis shifts, and the movie becomes a bit of a crime picture. The activity starts revolving around Hark’s home in the woods, which has the feel of a party house or a gang’s headquarters: beer, weed, deafening music, chortling pirate laughter, unnamed girls sitting on guys’ laps, boastful recounting of prior exploits, macho preening. At one point, Hark shows off his crossbow. There are guns on the walls.
You can tell that Blaze and (to a lesser extent) Ruth, who’ve lived a more sheltered life, are liberated by the feeling of danger and macho camaraderie that they experience in Hark’s orbit. Nobody robs an armored car or a bank. It’s not that kind of movie. But this type of scrapping is quasi-legal or illegal. And from the plethora of buzz saws and crushing machines to the risk of getting shot by security guards, there’s no shortage of ways a person could get maimed or killed. Ruth is very good at her new job—so good that Hark starts grooming her as a sidekick, and perhaps something else—but she’s also smart enough to know that the path she’s heading down is a dark one.
“Holler” is a drum-tight movie (90 minutes, including credits) that has enough plot for a longer film, but packs it in with such economy that the story seems to expand in your mind as you recall it. The setting is based on Jackson, Ohio, the filmmaker’s hometown, and much of the story is told from Ruth’s point-of-view. It’s easy to see where the script’s sense of lived experience and emotional truth comes from. Unlike a lot of people in the entertainment industry, Riegel isn’t the third or fourth person in a century-old showbiz dynasty, nor did she come from a family that made a comfortable living in some other business and comfortably supported her while tried to break in. Riegel grew up poor and served in the Army before turning to filmmaking. You can tell by the look and the feel of “Holler” that it was made by a person who is used to seeing beauty in places that we’re told aren’t beautiful, and looking for inner peace while living a life that could grind even the strongest person down.