Review by Sean Boelman
In recent years, Jessica Barden has shown herself to be an actress to watch, delivering some memorable (mostly comedic) performances across film and television. Her starring role in Nicole Riegel’s feature debut Holler is perhaps her biggest test yet, though, and both she and Riegel succeed in delivering a very compelling drama.
The movie follows a young woman who, coming from a troubled and uneducated background, sets out to forge her own path by going to college, forcing her and her brother to join an illegal scrapping crew. As an exploration of an unorthodox criminal underground, it doesn’t quite work because of some inconsistencies that will draw the viewers out of the film’s world, but as a movie about poverty, it works quite well.
This film is about second chances, and while none of the commentary it has to offer is anything particularly new, it is presented in a way that is emotionally affecting. At times, it feels like Riegel is milking the melodrama out of the situation, particularly when it comes to the subplots, but the main conflict of the story is pretty riveting.
The protagonist is a very sympathetic character and her desire to better herself is really what will form the audience’s connection with the story. And part of what makes this movie stand out is that the change in her character is a lot more subtle, rather than the overt arc that comes with most coming-of-age tales.
Barden is obviously excellent, packed with emotion and humility form start to finish. But the supporting cast that surrounds her is also very good. Gus Halper is great as the protagonist’s older brother, thriving in some of the more vulnerable scenes in the role. And Pamela Adlon has a few powerful scenes as their drug-addicted mother.
Stylistically, there are also some very interesting things happening here, showing that Riegel has a lot of potential as a filmmaker. With the subject matter, this is a gritty drama with a glimmer of hope, and the film’s visuals match that really well. And Riegel does an excellent job of bringing suspense out of something so mundane as scrapping.
That said, the movie does fall victim to some of the first-feature traps, the most obvious of which is trying to juggle too many subplots. The main story and the protagonist’s relationship with her brother are really well-developed. On the other hand, the characters’ interaction with their mother feels undercooked, and another character that is meant to be their de facto parental figure doesn’t add much to the equation.
Holler isn’t without its flaws, but for the most part, it achieves what it sets out to do. This is proof that Jessica Barden deserves more meaty leading roles like this, because she is an undeniably talented actress.
Holler screened for press and industry as a part of the TIFF Industry Selects sidebar of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 10-19.