There’s a distracting practice in American cinema of casting actors who are already well into their 20s to play teens, although “Holler” contains one of the few examples in recent memory where an age difference of nearly a decade, while noticeable, works to the film’s advantage. Ruth, the resourceful Ohio high school student at the heart of writer-director Nicole Riegel’s open-wound debut, has been forced to grow up too soon. Life isn’t fair, and it shows on the face of British actor Jessica Barden (“The Lobster”), whose remarkable performance illuminates this unvarnished dive into tough, small-town survival … and escape.
A resilient spark plug in a box of rusted parts, Ruth represents a huge swath of the American public rarely seen on-screen: young people without iPhones and Instagram accounts, just struggling to get by. Her mother (Pamela Adlon) got hooked on painkillers after injuring her hand and is now trying to detox in prison (where the comedian can’t resist cracking jokes during visitation scenes). Friends who work at the local frozen-foods plant pass along reject dinners so Ruth can eat, though cooking means boiling bottled water over a gas stove because the other utilities have been cut off. The film’s texture is in the details. There’s nothing glamorous about this kind of subsistence, and nothing invented.
Coming home to an eviction notice, Ruth doesn’t realize it, but she’s at a crossroads: She can stay in Jackson — Riegel’s dead-end Ohio hometown — and scrape by doing odd jobs, like her older brother Blaze (Gus Halper). Or she can do the scary thing and leave, as Riegel did — and which is nearly always the solution in movies like this. Ruth has scholastic aptitude (she steals library books to feed her curiosity) but a serious problem showing up for class, and no plans for college — although Blaze is determined for her to be the first one in the family to get a degree.
Riegel recognizes that to many, the dream of higher education seems impossibly impractical, and she doesn’t pretend that it’s an easy solution. There are shades of “The Deer Hunter” here — though the situation has hardly improved in the intervening decades — as the director pays a kind of elegiac respect to a class of Americans who work harder than the rest, but grasp only a fraction of the benefits dangled before them by the media. A scene at the roller rink (itself a relic of another time) captures a rare moment of relaxation and joy, but even this feels gritty as Riegel adopts the raw, documentary-style aesthetic of Barbara Loden’s “Wanda,” using handheld 16mm cameras for the extra intimacy and grain it gives the footage.
When Donald Trump’s voice is heard on the radio, promising “three very simple but beautiful words: jobs, jobs, jobs,” that doesn’t match the reality Ruth sees in an industrial town where unions have been crippled and layoffs are coming. The only way she and Blaze know to make money is by pillaging what remains of the community’s glory days, stealing scrap metal from abandoned buildings — and sometimes, from those not yet abandoned — and selling it to the junkyard. Doing that is not only dangerous but illegal, and could land Ruth in lockup alongside her mother. Not that she has many other options.
Expanded from a 2016 short, “Holler” is honest, which is not always what people want from movies, but it isn’t your typical poverty porn. Riegel avoids the melodramatic gimmicks (e.g., a run-in with the police or the manipulative death of a loved one) that tellers of such working-class stories love to pull, trusting that audiences understand that the only happy ending — the only hopeful ending — is one that sees Ruth on her way out of Jackson. The director has a secret weapon in Barden, who makes Ruth’s story relatable, even to those who’ve been fortunate enough to avoid such hardship. Her face may no longer look girlish, but the fact that cynicism hasn’t crushed Ruth’s spirit — her eyes still dance, and smiling comes easy — puts Barden right up there with such unbreakable, independent heroes as Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone” and Tessa Thompson in “Little Woods.”
“Holler” could have used a bit more energy in the back half, where things start to feel familiar. Ruth and her brother fall in with a gang of scrap-metal pirates, led by Austin Amelio and featuring several colorful extras (a woman with a forked tongue and another with an AK-47 tattoo on her face). But their exploits are difficult to follow — darkly lit and a bit of a jumble — when they might have provided a little excitement. Ruth seems almost blasé about her crimes, to the extent that her day-to-day endurance generates more suspense than any one of these scores. Maybe that’s the point, but life doesn’t have to be this hard, and so we lean in, hoping Ruth will realize it in time, before the inertia becomes too strong to break.