Review: ‘Holler,’ starring Jessica Barden

July 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jessica Barden in “Holler” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Holler”

Directed by Nicole Riegel

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in southern Ohio, the dramatic film “Holler” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class.

Culture Clash: A teenager from a dysfunctional family with financial problems must decide what she wants to do after she graduates from high school, and she gets involved in illegal scrap metal sales.

Culture Audience: “Holler” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in realistic and sometimes gritty stories about American working-class life.

Jessica Barden and Gus Halper in “Holler” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Holler” doesn’t break new ground for coming-of-age movies about a teenager who’s unsure of what to do after high school. However, the performances in the movie are well-acted and notable in their depiction of working-class life in southern Ohio. Jessica Barden carries “Holler” with the right mix of toughness and vulnerability. Written and directed by Nicole Riegel, and based on her short film of the same name, “Holler” was already an authentic-looking film, but Barden’s performance makes it a more compelling movie to watch.

Barden is such a talented actress that people who see “Holler” might be surprised to find out that she’s British in real life. She tends to portray Americans in her on-screen roles. (Barden also played a tough-but-tender working-class character in the 2020 dramatic film “Jungleland.”) In “Holler,” Barden’s character is Ruth Avery, a teenage loner, who’s in her last year of high school and facing major crossroads in her life.

Ruth and her older brother Blaze (played by Gus Halper), who is in his early 20s and is Ruth’s legal guardian, live in a house in an unnamed southern Ohio city with a depressed and shrinking manufacturing economy and where things have become quite unstable for Ruth and Blaze. They’re financially broke, and they have been served several eviction notices. Ruth is having problems keeping up with her school assignments, and she’s been punished for too missing too many classes.

Where are their parents? Ruth and Blaze’s mother Rhonda (played by Pamela Adlon) is an opioid addict who’s currently in jail and awaiting a court hearing on drug-related charges. Ruth and Blaze’s father is not seen or mentioned. It’s implied that he was not involved in raising Blaze and Ruth. Blaze, who dropped out of high school to take care of Ruth, works at the same factory where his mother worked before she was fired due to being under the influence of drugs while on the job.

To make extra money, Blaze and Ruth sell abandoned items at a local junkyard that is owned and operated by a scruffy and shady character namd Hark (played by Austin Amelio), who is in his 30s. In the movie’s opening scene, Blaze and Ruth are making a sale to Hark, but he drives a hard bargain and lowballs them on the purchase price. Because they need the money, they take Hark’s offer, although Ruth angrily tells Hark that she knows he’s ripping them off. Because of Ruth’s feisty spirit, it won’t be the last time that she and Hark will be at odds with each other.

Even though she’s having problems in school, Ruth is very intelligent, interested in learning, and a capable of getting good grades. In an early scene in the movie, she goes to the school library to steal a book because she’s been banned from borrowing books from the library due to her high absentee rate. Ruth immediately gets busted for the theft by a teacher named Mr. Porter (played by Joe Hemsley), who tells Ruth that if she doesn’t stop behaving badly, she could be expelled from school. Ruth acts like she doesn’t care, but viewers can see that deep down, she does care.

Meanwhile, Blaze frequently tells Ruth that she’s smart enough to go to college. He encourages her to pursue a college education because he thinks that Ruth is the person in their family who’s most likely to be able to accomplish things beyond their working-class upbringing. There are hints that Ruth thinks so too. In one scene, Ruth privately listens to a podcast where a celebrated female engineer (who’s unidentified in the movie) talks about how she got to where she is in her male-dominated field.

Although the movie never says what Ruth’s best academic subjects are and what she would want to study in college, she shows an aptitude for math and engineering when she and Blaze end up getting involved in Hark’s side business of illegally selling stolen scrap metal. Ruth and Blaze’s decision to get involved in this criminal activity comes after certain things happen that make Ruth and Blaze even more financially desperate than when the story began. Blaze and Ruth soon find out that the illegal scrap-metal hustle is a lot more dangerous than they thought it would be.

“Holler” has very few scenes of Ruth in high school, because her world ends up revolving around Hark’s junkyard and the illegal activities of stealing metal from abandoned buildings at night. There are a few tension-filled scenes of Ruth and Blaze visiting their mother Rhonda in jail. (Fun fact: Barden guest-starred on Adlon’s comedy series “Better Things” in 2020.) Ruth has a lot of resentment toward her mother, who tells Ruth, “We’re not college people,” when she finds out that Ruth has applied to go to college. Blaze usually tries to keep the peace when Ruth and Rhonda get into verbal arguments with each other, but he’s feeling the pressure of being the only parental figure in Ruth’s life.

The movie features a few supporting characters who are part of Ruth and Blaze’s lives. Linda (played by Becky Ann Baker) is a no-nonsense, respected senior employee at the factory. She also happens to be Rhonda’s best friend. When Ruth feels like she has no one else to turn to, Linda is sometimes a source of comfort.

By contrast, Ruth can barely tolerate Blaze’s girlfriend Tonya (played by Grace Kaiser), who also works at the factory. Ruth isn’t afraid to express that she thinks Tonya is too promiscuous and not good enough to be with Blaze. The relationship that Blaze and Tonya have isn’t really true love, but they have genuine affection for each other. In other words, Tonya isn’t Blaze’s Ms. Right. She’s Blaze’s Ms. Right Now.

One of the best things about “Holler” is how realistically it shows the complications of being a teenager who’s on the cusp of legal adulthood in contemporary America—being old enough to drive and work, but not old enough to drink alcohol. Being in your late teens is usually the age range when people feel the most pressure to figure out what they want to do with their lives. However, those choices can often restricted if they require a college degree that someone might not be old enough to have, might not be able to afford, or might have other responsibilities that prevent someone from getting a college education.

Ruth embodies this dichotomy of being an immature child and being a mature adult in her personality. She can be a tough-talking brat but also a good listener. She can sometimes act like a know-it-all, but she’s also a patient observer who’s willing to learn. She wants to grow up quickly and be independent, but she also likes the comfort of knowing that she can have someone to lean and and back her up when she needs it.

Ruth’s relationship with Blaze has a very genuine younger sister/older dynamic with real family love between them. The only thing that Ruth and Blaze argue about the most in the movie is whether or not she should go to college. Blaze is more enthusiastic about it than Ruth is. Look for big clues on how Ruth uses her red ski cap as a conscious or subconscious symbol of the life that Blaze thinks that Ruth should leave behind.

The interactions between Ruth and Hark are what really demonstrate Ruth’s feelings of confusion over wanting to be a child and wanting to be an adult. Ruth and Hark, despite their differences, end up being attracted to each other on an emotional level. He admires her assertiveness and quick thinking, while she admires his confidence and leadership abilities.

There’s a scene where Ruth, Hark, Blaze, Tonya and some of their co-workers are all hanging out at a roller skating rink, where Ruth shows some aloofness yet vulnerability. Hark asks Ruth to go on the skating rink with him, even though they both know they aren’t very good at roller skating. It’s the first sign that something more than a platonic relationship might happen between Ruth and Hark.

Later in the movie, Ruth gets an injury on her right leg, and Hark makes a move on her when he’s helping her with the bandages. As creepy as it might be for a man to make sexual advances on a teenager who’s half his age or young enough to be his daughter, it’s a reality that happens a lot. Ruth is an easy target of older sexual predators because she comes from a dysfunctional family with little or no parental supervision. And it would be easy to speculate that teenagers with “daddy issues” would be more vulnerable to seeking approval and attention from much-older men.

Blaze is very aware that Ruth being around Hark and Hark’s all-male crew of employees will have some risks, so Blaze warns them not to hurt or take advantage of his Ruth. Blaze is a protective brother who keeps a watchful eye on Ruth when they’re with each other. But will it be enough to keep her out of danger?

“Holler” has some twists and turns in the story that are not very predictable. The movie doesn’t make anyone an evil villain but instead presents a clear-sighted view of what happens when people make bad choices. Halper and Adlon give admirable performances, since they are entirely believable as Ruth’s family members who want the best for her but express it in different ways.

As good as the acting is by all of the cast members in “Holler,” this movie is really Ruth’s story, and Barden delivers a nuanced and meaningful performance. Riegel’s even-keeled direction is minimalist and observational, which fits the tone perfectly for a movie about people who don’t have a lot of material possessions, but their lives are complicated enough that they don’t have time for fussy judgment. “Holler” is an impressive feature-film debut for Riegel, who achieves the right balance of telling universal and relatable truths with a very specific story.

IFC Films released “Holler” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 11, 2021.

Review: ‘The King of Staten Island,’ starring Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow and Steve Buscemi

June 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures)

“The King of Staten Island”

Directed by Judd Apatow

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly on New York City’s Staten Island, the comedy/drama “The King of Staten Island” has a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Latinos and one Native American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 24-year-old ambitionless stoner has conflicts with family members and his widowed mother’s new boyfriend about where his life is headed.

Culture Audience: “The King of Staten Island” will appeal primarily to fans of star Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow, but the movie follows a lot of predictable tropes that they’ve done before in other films.

Bill Burr and Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures)

Here we go again. Pete Davidson is portraying another irresponsible stoner who doesn’t want to grow up but has to face the reality that eventually he has to figure out what he wants to do with his life. If that plot sounds familiar, it’s because Davidson played the exact same type of character in his starring role in the comedy/drama “Big Time Adolescence,” released in March 2020, just three months before comedy/drama “The King of Staten Island” was released.

Judd Apatow directed and co-wrote “The King of Staten Island,” which in some ways is a better movie than “Big Time Adolescence” and in some ways is not. First, what doesn’t work about “The King of Staten Island”: The total running time for “The King of Staten Island” (two hours and 17 minutes) is too long for this type of movie. Because of this long running time, parts of the movie tend to lose focus and have the rambling quality of some cobbled-together improv sketches. And although Davidson has a few moments where his Scott Carlin character shows some emotional depth (especially toward the end of the film), it’s too little, too late, since Davidson is recycling the same dimwit act that he keeps doing in his movies, whether it’s a leading or supporting role.

What does work well about “The King of Staten Island” is that the movie is elevated by the terrific supporting performances of Marisa Tomei (who plays Scott’s widowed mother Margie, who’s a nurse); Bill Burr (who plays Ray Bishop, Margie’s firefighter boyfriend); Bel Powley (who plays Kelsey, Scott’s “friend with benefits”); and Steve Buscemi (who plays Papa, Ray’s father who works as a firefighter at the same station). Their authentic portrayals make “The King of Staten Island” look like it has real people in it, instead of caricatures.

The movie is called “The King of Staten Island,” but Scott really isn’t the king of anything. He’s a frequently unemployed, 24-year-old high-school dropout who still lives with his mother in the New York City borough of Staten Island, a community that’s more politically conservative and less racially diverse than New York City’s other boroughs. Scott spends his days and nights getting drunk or stoned (mostly on marijuana, sometimes on stronger drugs) with his other unemployed friends Oscar (played by Ricky Velez), Igor (played by Moises Arias) and Richie (played by Lou Wilson).

Also in this group of partiers are Kelsey (who’s known Scott since they were kids) and Kelsey’s friend Tara (played by Carly Aquilino). Scott and his friends are in various ways active participants or complicit in the small-time drug dealing they’re involved with to make extra money. Kelsey is proud to be from Staten Island (unlike the rest of the people in the group), and she’s at least trying to do something with her life by applying for a New York City government job. Oscar is the most reckless out of all of them, since it’s his idea later in the story for the guys to rob a pharmacy.

Scott and Kelsey are secretly having sex with each other. He wants to keep their sexual relationship casual, and he doesn’t want anyone else to know about it because Scott tells Kelsey that if they go public about it, it will ruin their friendship. But Kelsey wants more validation for this relationship, and the secrecy is starting to bother her. She tells Scott that she wants more of a respectful commitment from him and wants him to include her in more of his family activities, but he keeps brushing off her concerns.

Scott’s firefighter father (who’s never seen in the movie) died in a hotel fire when Scott was 7 years old. Viewers are supposed to feel sympathetic for Scott because he uses his father’s death as a trauma that keeps holding him back in life. Why do we know this? Because Scott keeps bringing up his father’s death as an excuse for his emotional arrested development.

Scott also has some health issues that affect his outlook on life, such as Crohn’s disease, depression and attention deficit disorder. Davidson is a Staten Island native whose firefighter father also died in real life when Davidson was a child. Davidson has been open about his struggles with substance abuse and mental illness. The problem is that even with these real-life parallels, Davidson’s performance in “The King of Staten Island” is still fairly shallow and repetitive until near the end of the film.

Meanwhile, Scott’s mother Margie has tolerated Scott’s laziness and his refusal to get his own place, perhaps because she’s lonely and hasn’t had a serious romantic relationship since her husband died. Scott’s younger sister Claire (played by Maude Apatow, Judd Apatow’s real-life elder daughter), who has graduated from high school and is headed to college, has a combination of a loving and resentful attitude toward Scott.

Because Scott is the irresponsible sibling, Claire feels like she always has to worry about him. She tells Scott that it’s unfair that she bear this emotional burden, because Scott as the older sibling should be looking out for her. Claire also tells Scott that she resents that Scott’s tendency to get into trouble causes their mother to focus a lot of energy on Scott, while Claire often feels ignored.

The beginning of the movie shows how Claire doesn’t really want Scott to come to the joint graduation party that she’s having with her best friend Joanne (played Pauline Chalamet), because Claire is afraid that Scott might embarrass her. Scott doesn’t really feel like going to the party because he doesn’t want to wear a suit. There’s some back-and-forth arguing, until their mother Margie forces Scott to go to the party and tells him to behave himself while he’s there. This family drama over the party takes up a little too much time in the movie and could have benefited from some tighter editing.

Does Scott have any dreams he wants to fulfill? Yes. He wants to be a tattoo artist. And he has an idea to eventually start his own tattoo parlor restaurant, which he’d like to call Ruby Tattuesdays. Scott thinks it’s a brilliant idea, but the idea is ridiculed by his friends. Colson Baker (also known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly) has a cameo in “The King of Staten Island” as a tattoo artist who basically laughs Scott out of his shop when Scott tries to get an apprenticeship at the shop. (Baker, who’s a close friend of Davidson’s in real life, played one of the stoner buddies in “Big Time Adolescence.”)

To hone his tattooing skills, Scott gives his friends free tattoos. The results are … Well, let’s just say that Scott isn’t ready for the big leagues in the tattoo world. One day, Scott and his male friends are hanging around outside when a 9-year-old boy named Harold (played by Luke David Blumm) randomly comes over and starts talking to them. The guys are amused by this kid, and when Scott asks Harold if he wants Scott to give him a tattoo, Harold eagerly says yes and tells Scott that he wants a tattoo of The Punisher on his arm.

Scott ignores concerns from his friends that it would be illegal to tattoo Harold because Harold is under the age of 18. Within less than a minute of Scott tattooing Harold, the boy reels away in pain and tells Scott to stop, before running away. It isn’t long before Harold’s divorced father Ray angrily shows up with Harold at Margie’s door to demand why Scott was trying to tattoo a 9-year-old boy.

Margie smooths things over by offering to pay for the laser treatment to correct the tattoo scar, and she becomes furious with Scott, who gives some very dumb excuses for why he did this illegal tattooing of a child. Later, Ray comes back to visit Margie to apologize for yelling at her so harshly, and he ends up asking her out on a date. Their romance becomes serious (they end up living together), which doesn’t sit too well with Scott, since Ray and Scott don’t really like each other.

Besides the fact that Ray doesn’t respect Scott and thinks he’s a lazy bum, their relationship is also tense because Scott hates that his mother is dating a firefighter. Scott thinks it’s somewhat disrespectful to the memory of Scott’s father, whom Scott has put on a pedestal in his childhood memories of his dad. Ray knew Scott’s father, but only as a passing acquaintance. In a pivotal scene in the movie, Ray’s father Papa gives Scott some background information on Scott’s father that helps Scott view his dad as more like a human instead of a god.

Even though Scott and Ray don’t really like each other, Ray trusts Scott enough to let Scott sometimes take care of Ray’s children—Harold and 7-year-old daughter Kelly (played by Alexis Rae Forlenza)—who like being around Scott. It’s while babysitting the kids that Scott starts to show some signs that he’s capable of being a responsible adult. Scott also finds an ally with Ray’s ex-wife Gina (played by Pamela Adlon), who also despises Ray.

Judd Apatow and Davidson co-wrote “The King of Staten Island” screenplay with Dave Sirus, who has a background in stand-up comedy. The movie’s dialogue is hit or miss, as some scenes play like a comedy sketch, while other scenes play as if the film is based more in realism. One of the “comedy sketch” scenes that falls flat is when Scott, who’s gotten a waiter job at his cousin’s restaurant, finds out that the restaurant’s waiters have a strange tradition of boxing each other at the end of a shift, and the winner gets everyone else’ waiter tips. Needless to say, Scott doesn’t last long at that job.

An example of the type of “humorous” lines from Scott is a scene when he and his friends talk about how Staten Island compares to other parts of the Tri-State area. Scott says about Staten Island: “We’re the only place New Jersey looks down on. You can see the garbage dump from space. This place is never going to change.”

The funniest scene in the movie doesn’t come from any of the main characters, but from a cameo by Action Bronson, who plays a very stoned man who walks up to a very stoned Scott while Scott is sitting outside. The man, who’s nameless in the film, has a bleeding wound in his abdomen. And what happens next in that scene includes some genuine laugh-out-loud moments.

Judd Apatow’s best-known movies (such as “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” or “Trainwreck”) tend to be about immature adults who eventually have some kind of emotional metamorphosis. Therefore, “The King of Staten Island” is really not doing anything groundbreaking or particularly innovative for Apatow. As for Davidson, if he wants to be considered one of his generation’s greatest comedians who can act, he needs to show audiences that he can do more than the same type of empty-headed “loser” persona that can put him in typecast hell.

Universal Pictures released “The King of Staten Island” on digital and VOD on June 12, 2020.

 

Louis C.K. scandal: Comedian admits he sexually harassed women; his career is ruined as he loses lucrative business deals

November 10, 2017

by Colleen McGregor

Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon
Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon at the Tribeca TV Festival’s sneak peek of “Better Things” Season 2 at Cinepolis Chelsea in New York City on September 22, 2017. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

Emmy-winning comedian Louis C.K. has admitted that “those stories are true” that he committed sexual misconduct by asking several women (who were co-workers or colleagues) if he could masturbate or expose his penis in front of them. In a statement issued on November 10, 2017, Louis C.K. (whose real name is Louis Székely) expressed regret that he abused his power, and said he was remorseful that his actions hurt the women he mistreated, his friends, loved ones and other people. The allegations were first reported in a New York Times article (published on November 9, 2017) that detailed experiences from five women who said that Louis C.K. sexually propositioned them by showing them his penis without their consent and/or asked if he could masturbate in front of them.

After the New York Times article was published, the backlash against Louis C.K. was swift and severe: FX, HBO and Netflix have all issued statements saying that they will not work with him anymore. The Orchard, the distributor of his film “I Love You, Daddy,” cancelled the movie’s New York City premiere (which was scheduled to take place on November 9, 2017), and has decided not to release the movie. (In the movie, which was written and directed by Louis C.K., one of the characters in the movie has a penchant for masturbating in front of people.) In addition, several public appearances from Louis C.K. have been cancelled.

The 50-year-old entertainer is known for his raunchy stand-up comedy routine, in which he often talks about sex and sometimes mentions that his addiction to porn caused problems in his marriage.  Louis C.K.  and artist Alix Bailey got divorced in 2008, after 13 years of marriage. The former spouses have two daughters together.

Louis C.K. is among the growing list of celebrities whose reputations and careers have been ruined in 2017, after several people went to the media to accuse them of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct. Entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein, actor Kevin Spacey and filmmaker Brett Ratner are just three examples of those who have been accused of committing physical sexual assault in addition to verbal harassment. Weinstein and Ratner have denied any sexual contact that was non-consensual. Spacey made an apology to his first public accuser (actor Anthony Rapp, who told BuzzFeed his story), but Spacey claimed to not remember making any sexual advances on Rapp, who said he was 14 when a 26-year-old Spacey tried to have sex with him in 1986. Weinstein and Spacey have issued public statements saying that they are seeking treatment for their harmful actions that led to these problems. It remains to be seen if there will be any criminal charges or lawsuits filed against the accused as a result of the accusers going public.

Actress/writer/producer Pamela Adlon, who worked with Louis C.K. on the FX shows “Louie” and “Better Things,” issued this statement on November 10, 2017: “Hi. I’m here. I have to say something. It’s so important. My family and I are devastated and in shock after the admission of abhorrent behavior by my friend and partner, Louis C.K. I feel deep sorrow and empathy for the women who have come forward. I am asking for privacy at this time for myself and my family. I am processing and grieving and hope to say more as soon as I am able.”

Although FX has cut ties with Louis C.K. and his Pig Newton production company, which co-created “Better Things,” the show has not yet been taken off of the network’s schedule.

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