TIFF ’20 — Jessica Barden Gives a Delicate and Commanding Performance in Bittersweet Coming-of-Age Story ‘Holler’

A still from 'Holler'. Ruth (Jessica Barden) stands in a snowy scrap yard next to a red truck. she is wrapped up for the winter, in jeans, a fleece jacket and puffy coat with gloves and red hat. the image is drenched in blue and looks cold.
ICM Partners

Nicole Riegel’s Holler gives us a coming-of age narrative that packs a gut punch or two. Anchored by a stellar performance in Jessica Barden, Riegel shines a light on the great difficulty of leaving home for greener pastures. The route for opportunity is a difficult one, and at times treacherous.

In this semi-biographical tale we follow Ruth Avery (Barden), a brilliant young girl, as she navigates life in a small forgotten pocket of Southern Ohio. The American manufacturing world is crumbling, taking with it one town after another, and Ruby’s town is no exception. So, as opportunities dry up and the fight to survive gears up, Ruth finds herself in an impossible situation when she gets accepted into a college. To make anywhere near the money needed for this chance, she joins a dangerous scrap metal crew.

This coming-of-age story is not lacking in it’s lighter qualities, as Barden expertly deploys that dry and dark humour (sans her natural British accent) that some may already be familiar with. However, those moments of reprieve as Ruth shoots of verbal jabs does not distract from the depressing reality that Ruth’s ticket out is through scraping, rummaging, and dismantling the very precious metal that held up her community.

ICM Partners

Although there is nothing overtly spectacular about this small town, Riegel zeroes in on the quiet personal moments and the small bursts of life and light that erupts when members of the community get together. As things are slowly turning sideways for everyone, community still lingers. Riegel, pulling from her own backstory, is not quick to dismiss this place or these people. Rather, she expresses compassion for a place and community that is her own, and that is felt throughout the film.

Captured beautifully on film we see Ruth shrouded in sunless days, murky gray air, and cold dark nights, with only her bright red toque standing out. A small but intentional touch is having Ruth’s name reflected in her choice of clothing and headwear, as Ruby’s allegiance to the colour symbolises that resilience within her, the hope that shines through the darkest of moments. She may be fragile at times, but her fearlessness is what carries her through.

Nicole Riegel’s Holler is a delicate dance between despair and hope, anchored by a strong leading performance from Jessica Barden.

Holler screened at the 2020 Toronto international Film Festival. ICM Partners is handling sales for the film, which has yet to find distribution.

by Ferdosa Abdi

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