It’s unsurprising that The Hollars came to audiences by way of Sundance as it’s exactly the kind of movie Sundance became famous for in the 1990s and early 2000s. A family dramedy with immature son(s) coming of age at the point that they have to face a family crisis, life changes galore, familiar character actors getting leading roles. It even has a name actor taking on directorial responsibilities. In many ways, The Hollars feels like a bit of nostalgia of the 90s independent movement when studios supported little movies and intimate, personal storytelling was praised as refreshing.
Which is probably why the film works only part of the time. There’s nothing wrong with these movies but the story-lines are often so simple, the films that follow that direction can feel unnecessary especially if they don’t change the film’s perspective. The Hollars stars John Krasinski (who also directed the film) as John, the son who left his small town to pursue a career, and become a graphic novelist because this is a script by Jim Strouse. He’s expecting a baby with his girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick), an independently wealthy pet clothing designer, who buys him a ticket to return home to see his mother who’s been hospitalized for a brain tumor. Margo Martindale and Richard Jenkins play John’s parents, while Sharlto Copley plays his brother Ron, a divorcee now living at home and working for his father’s near bankrupt business.
Martindale and Jenkins are fantastic in the movie, having nice chemistry as a long married couple who’ve somewhat reversed stereotypical gender roles in their marriage. They bring their signature earthy honesty to the roles and the scenes where they are actually at the center are the strongest. They enhance the performances of the younger actors by providing something of an anchor for them to play off. But when the three younger actors are left on their own, the movie and their characters are noticeably weak.
Copley has proven he works well as a genre actor but here he feels like a stiff performer trying play a lighter character. Kendrick, who’s always so charming on screen is given no help playing a character who too often feels like the sounding board to an immature man; a few more no-nonsense reality checks from her would have made the character seem slightly more realistic and would have reinforced the strong connection she has with Martindale. But Krasinski is the weakest here among his cast, and turns his tired man-child character into someone insufferable. There’s no reason that the story should be centered on his character, especially because of the number of similar film narratives told from the perspective of the straight, white, male, man-child who’s the only “normal” person in his dysfunctional family. There’s feels like some ego is at work behind this performance, seeing this non-heroic character as the family hero, which is something I’ve never seen from Krasinski that rubbed me the wrong way almost from the very beginning.
But I’d be lying to suggest there aren’t a number of scenes (most of them with Martindale and Jenkins) which work and accomplish the film’s goals. I found myself moved more than a few times, and even surprised once or twice by something that didn’t simply feel like a plot contrivance. Strouse has a good ear for dialogue when characters are allowed to talk openly and honestly. Which made me wonder why Krasinski had taken on directing responsibilities, rather than Strouse. This is the first script since Lonesome Jim that he didn’t also direct, and while he might not have better technical abilities as a director than Krasinski (his first film Brief Interviews with Hideous Men looks better than The Hollars), that wouldn’t matter so much with this film. Because the biggest problem with this movie is it feels as if it lacks the personal touch from a director. There’s a reason so many of these intimate, family focus films are the work of writer-directors; because even if the stories aren’t completely original, they can still be told well if they’re being told from the heart.