In coming-of-age drama “Holler,” a young woman named Ruth (Jessica Barden) struggles to escape her economically ravaged hometown of Jackson, Ohio, where dead ends are piling up.
With older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) preoccupied by their drug-addicted mother (Pamela Adlon), who’s in jail, Ruth knows her options at home are limited, especially as more factories close each month. After she’s accepted to college, Ruth and Gus join a scrap metal crew, hoping to make enough for her to attend even as their already arduous work becomes dangerous.
In theaters and on demand this week, “Holler” marks the feature debut of writer/director Nicole Riegel, who grew up in Jackson. Joining the military out of high school, Riegel spent time producing her own plays after her service but soon decamped for Los Angeles, finding success as a screenwriter. For Riegel, making “Holler” meant returning to her roots. “It was surreal to go to those operational factories, film in them, and then hear, ‘Hey, Nicole,’” recalls Riegel, speaking alongside Barden over Zoom. “I’d turn around and see people I went to high school with, who were working in the factories. Our reasons for being there were very different. That was uncomfortable. I didn’t really know what to make of it when it was happening.”
But “Holler” embraces the honesty of that discomfort, delivering the rare working-class story that’s grim and unvarnished without veering into melodrama or trafficking in poverty porn. Instead, in its focus on one young woman weighing her own promising future against the family she’d leave behind to follow it, “Holler” feels authentically pained and personal. On the strengths of Barden’s unerring performance, it resonates more widely as a story of finding resilience, breaking free, and moving forward.
Riegel and Barden spoke to RogerEbert.com about drawing on their own working-class backgrounds, taking cues from Barbara Loden’s “Wanda,” and harnessing the cathartic power of Phoebe Bridgers.
Nicole, when did you first want to make a movie in your hometown?
NICOLE RIEGEL: It didn’t occur to me to make films until much later in life, when I was able to reflect on why it was so hard for me to get an education. It wasn’t that hard for everyone else around me later in life. I knew what it felt like to experience that, but later in life I was able to really analyze the institutions and things out of my control as a 17-year-old in Appalachia, to learn why something that should have been easier for me to access wasn’t.
Jessica, it’s my understanding that you auditioned for this role and then pursued it actively. Why was it the role you wanted at this point in your career?
JESSICA BARDEN: I read the script when I was 24 and at a point in my life where I felt very far away from where I came from. I’m from England, but I have a working-class background. And my life was going very well, but I felt quite detached from what my roots were. I wanted to find something that could help me go back to that, explore it, to remember where I came from and the joy of it. At that point, through my career, I actually was really resenting [my working-class background] a lot. I was in truth trying to hide it. I read this script Nicole had written, and after meeting her I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do at that point. I wanted to make a very brave, funny, vulnerable, angry movie about what it’s like to be a young woman from a working-class background – taking out whether it’s English or American.
I met Nicole and she felt the same as me. She was very strong, tenacious, knew exactly what she wanted, and reminded me of the character in the movie. She also reminded me of myself. I knew if I got to make this movie, I would have not only the experience I wanted to explore for myself but a once-in-a-career experience as well. At that point, it was in front of me and I didn’t want it to get away.
NR: Jessica just said something so important that I don’t know if we’ve talked about in any interview, related to her background, which is that she hid it. I think that’s maybe something we’ve both done, and that’s what’s so special about “Holler.” Jessica and I can’t hide our working-class backgrounds in “Holler.” It’s a really big open wound. In every interview where we’re talking about it, I still don’t feel completely comfortable. But in “Holler,” there’s no hiding anything. What she just said is really important and vulnerable: we made a film about something we’ve been hiding.
JB: It’s so much easier for people to not work with people who could be complicated. There’s so much generalization about what it’s like to not be from that typical middle-class background you associate with this industry. I remembered it a lot when I was younger. There are so many generalizations and opinions. The number of times people have just said to me, “I bet you’ve been in a lot of fights.” No! I’ve actually never been in a physical fight with anyone. I wouldn’t physically fight someone. I just wouldn’t. Those types of generalizations lead to the types of roles people are going to give you if you talk about it. You feel like it complicates the opportunities you’re given.
NR: It’s exactly the same way for directors. If [I next wanted to tell] a story that’s about a wealthier class or a different time period, there was a risk in telling “Holler,” because that’s all Jessica can be in and all I can direct.
JB: I’ve auditioned for upper-class roles and had people turn around and say, “We don’t think she can play a role like that.” Most times, I’ll see a girl and know she’s from serious money, and no one asks them if they can play down. It’s always whether you can play up. To those actors, there’s a novelty to playing these roles. It’s still a crazy conversation we don’t have a lot. We just don’t talk about class enough. It still makes people feel really uncomfortable, to talk about it in themselves, and also even upper-class people feel uncomfortable talking about it. There's just this thing around the world where it’s uncomfortable to talk about what your background is. It should be something you want to be proud of, that you want to put into your work and be constructive with. We should be allowed to use it and be honest, free of being judged for it.
NR: It makes a lot of people uncomfortable, because it reminds them we’re not in a meritocracy.
Jessica, seeing you in this role, I did think about British cinema’s depictions of the working class, from Ken Loach to Terence Davies and Andrea Arnold. You’ve played working-class British characters before, including in 2016’s “Ellen,” a Channel 4 film you showed Nicole after auditioning for “Holler.” In preparing for this role, what did you observe about the differences between American and British cinema’s depictions of the working class?
JB: In the past, England did have a better relationship with telling everyone’s story. It did. In truth, I think we did it a lot better 20 or 30 years ago. Now, you’re usually being majorly abused. It’s a grim storyline, because you’re representing a huge world issue at the same time. I don’t know that anybody is making “Holler” in England either. That’s what I loved about “Holler.” It’s a regular coming-of-age story in a background we don’t usually see. “Ellen,” I loved making it, and we do need to watch those stories, but everything I was reading was, “You’re being groomed or sexually assaulted.” We have “Winter’s Bone” for that. Somebody did it so well. You don’t need to do that storyline again.
There was always a man doing something horrible to me. I didn’t want to show that. We don’t have to. I hope “Holler '' gets to go to England as well. This movie is unique for everywhere, because it’s just about her life, the decisions she makes, what she does and doesn’t do. The enemy is not seen. Usually when we’re watching these movies, the enemy needs to be seen, but in “Holler” it’s just the world. Usually, there’s a villain, and it’s usually a man, but you can’t play that all the time, because it’s not the truth. Men aren’t always the enemy, there are bigger enemies, and there are reasons why the men are like that. But that’s not what they’re showing. Movies usually generalize a lot. “Holler” doesn’t do that.
Nicole, you shot this film in handheld Super 16mm, and that intimate, grainy naturalism is only one way it reminded me of Barbara Loden’s “Wanda.” Why was this the right look for “Holler”?
NR: Thank you for picking up on “Wanda.” That rarely happens. It was a huge touchstone, a huge influence. “Holler” is about a people and a place that feel left behind, and nothing feels more left behind to me than film, specifically 16mm. Today, camera rental houses like Kodak and Panavision want new filmmakers to use it, and you have big filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino who can afford to shoot all day long on any film they want. A reason a lot of us newer filmmakers don’t use film is affordability, so these camera houses are really trying to cut amazing deals to make it more accessible to us. There was just no other way for me to make the film. I wouldn’t have made “Holler” if I couldn’t shoot it on film. That’s part of why “Holler” took so long to make. I had to find the right teammates to be on board to figure that out. It’s also a quirk that Jessica’s look only enhanced my desire for film. I remember meeting her and walking away, like, “She’s begging me to shoot her on 16mm.”
JB: I was born in the wrong era, which explains more than it should.
NR: She’s like Cybill Shepherd. She was begging me to shoot her on celluloid. Hers was just such a beautiful, interesting face, with such texture. I don’t think every movie has to be shot on film, but this one had to be.
The faded reds and blues of “Holler” are so evocative and deepen the film’s emotional resonance. How did you and director of photography Dustin Lane arrive on the film’s look and color palette?
NR: In terms of the color, I’d like to shout out [production designer] Lance Mitchell and [costume designer] Ciara Whaley for their beautiful work. I love “Rosetta” and the work of the Dardenne brothers, and “Wanda,” which influenced the reds. I’m obsessed with telling stories through color, and red for me always symbolized passion. That’s just what it means.
Though internal, Ruth is a very passionate character, and I wanted to mark her with a color no one else had. In the film, you have Ruth’s mom and [her former co-worker] Linda, [played by Becky Ann Baker], who wear darker shades of her color; we dressed them in burgundies and really dark pinks. No one has red, but we kept the matriarchs in the same color palette to unite the “Holler” women, and we gave her brother the blue. There’s a beautiful transference of color that happens at the end of the film, but you could really watch “Holler” just tracking color. There’s a whole story told. It’s also red, white, and blue, which represents America. That was a piece of it. But red was so important to the leading lady and became her signature. We only let other things be red if there was a relationship between Ruth and that thing, like the truck, for instance.
Scrap yards can be extremely dangerous. How did you go about achieving the level of documentary realism “Holler” has while ensuring everyone’s safety?
JB: I never felt unsafe, but I just trusted Nicole. I’ll let Nicole answer this, but we did a crash course there, so we were skilled scrappers by the end of it. I trusted Nicole wasn’t going to kill me, probably.
NR: I was actually going to pass it over to Jess, because the entire time I had such anxiety about her getting hurt. No one will ever know the anxiety I felt. She could not get hurt. And in one scene, you can see all these sparks flying, right at her eyes and over her head. Filming that scene, Jess was one of those actors who’s not afraid of the tools she’s using.
JB: I was afraid of the sparks, but you said I wasn’t going to be set on fire, so I just got on with it.
NR: I said it wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t say it couldn’t happen. [Both laugh.] The whole time, I was watching the scene, five feet away, praying, “Please, God, please don’t let her hair set on fire.” What a terrible director I’d have been.
“Holler” features Phoebe Bridgers’ “Scott Street” at a pivotal moment, with those lyrics, “Anyway, don’t leave a stranger/Don’t be a stranger.” How did you settle on that song?
NR: I’m a really big indie music buff. A film we don’t ever talk about that I love is “Good Will Hunting,” which there are touches of in “Holler.” That film ends on “Miss Misery” by [late American folk legend] Elliott Smith, and I’m a very big fan of his. Phoebe Bridgers is so influenced by Elliott Smith and talks about him all the time, may he rest in peace. It felt like [choosing “Scott Street”] was a way I could have lineage with Elliott Smith at the end of this movie. The shot is very similar to the one in “Good Will Hunting,” and the song is by Phoebe Bridgers, who adores Elliott Smith. I really hope Phoebe Bridgers watches “Holler” at some point and picks up on that. It’s also the only moment in the film where we truly break from the score, and the song just felt so perfect, lyrically and musically, in feeling and melody, to let Ruth have this beautiful moment.
“Holler” opens in select theaters and on digital platforms this Friday, June 11, from IFC Films.