by Hope Madden
It is incredibly rare to see a worthwhile film that deals with American poverty. Nomadland certainly broke through, and recent movies including Winter’s Bone, Frozen River and Little Woods also made the case that resilience and poverty need not condescend or patronize.
Hillbilly Elegy missed that memo.
Holler, the feature debut from filmmaker and Ohio native Nicole Riegel, sugarcoats nothing, patronizes no one, and does not need a Mamaw to explain the facts of life.
Instead, Ruth (a bristlingly confident Jessica Barden) figures things out on her own. A high school senior who spends most of her time collecting scrap metal with her brother – both just one step away from eviction – Ruth has very little time for contemplation, though.
Riegel’s Rust Belt winter offers a malevolent backdrop for Ruth’s coming of age, and the illegal scrapping—the tearing down of the disused industries that once kept Ruth’s family and town afloat—is eerily fitting.
Barden gives the film a grainy bleakness, Ruth’s red hat and her brother Blaze’s (Gus Halper) pickup the only bursts of color in the dreary Southern Ohio grey. Compelling and authentic, it all often feels mainly like a showcase for Barden’s talent.
That’s not to say that the film is in any way weak, simply that Barden’s performance is that strong. Willful and bursting with anger, her Ruth is a force—destructive, sure, but strong and powerfully determined.
Barden’s not alone. Her supporting ensemble delivers nuance and grit in equal measure, from Halper to Austin Amelio’s sketchy scrap metal entrepreneur to a remarkably humane turn from Becky Ann Baker. Riegel’s script, dreary though the vision can be, hints at forgiveness and hope in nearly every scene.
If you seek an antidote to Hillbilly Elegy, Riegel has what you’re looking for.