Ruth (Jessica Barden) is a smart young woman who, in different circumstances, might have had a bright future ahead of her. As it stands, the future is besides the point because the present is already so tenuous. She’s barely attending her last year of high school because she and older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) are working at a frozen food plant trying to keep their family home from sliding back into the hands of the bank while their junkie mother (a very unglam Pamela Adlon) gets sober in jail. The siblings strip scrap metal for spare change but when Ruth’s acceptance to college could mean real change for her, the pair get serious about making money and agree to a dangerous (not to mention illegal) scheme with shady dealer Hark (Austin Amelio).
It’s easy to mistake Ruth for a woman twice her age; she’s certainly got enough burdens to add some real curvature to the spine. She’s a minor but talks as though she’s already seen it all, and with only the vague sense of a surrogate mother in boss/neighbour Linda (Becky Ann Baker), who can only turn so many blind eyes, she doesn’t exactly have a lot of positive influences or role models in her life. She’s smart but not optimistic enough to be ambitious. Her small, forgotten town in southern Ohio has no opportunity yet acts as a vacuum to the people born there. This is no place for the young, but it’s hard going on impossible to leave. Meanwhile, everyone’s TV or radio has Trump making empty promises about the return of the manufacturing economy, which everyone but him seems to know is already dead.
Writer-director Nicole Riegel, a former U.S. Army soldier, expands her 2016 short of the same name, reflecting on the people and places she grew up with, returning to her own struggling Ohio hometown and shooting on gritty 16mm film to give the film an authentic feel. In fact, she casts non-professional actors in supporting roles to lend a blue collar credibility to the film, but the entire cast comports itself very well, and there isn’t a complain to be made about the acting.
The story, perhaps, is a little worn. There are decades worth of blue collar movies about working class struggles. There is little dignity in the tough choices to be made – there are no working class heroes here, only people who are tired, poor, and desperate. It’s a bleak outlook for a young woman, one that Barden wears well, and the movie reflects her competence, its strongest moments are in her hands. Though it may be a little well-tread, it is a strong first feature for Riegel, who surely has more stories to tell.