There are films that leave you in awe.
There are films that explore new worlds.
There are films that explore the fringes of cinema and technology and life itself.
Then, there are simple films. There are familiar films. There are films with stories we've seen before and experienced before and can practically recite for ourselves as we're watching them unfold. Sometimes, these films are a disaster. They can be boring and predictable and formulaic and downright trite.
But, oh, sometimes that familiarity takes us to a special place, a familiar place deep inside that feels real and warm and strangely comforting even when the story itself is not.
The Hollars, written by James C. Strouse and directed by John Krasinski, is such a film, a simple and familiar story brought vividly and beautifully by a cast of immensely talented actors who find every touching nuance of their characters and relax into them with authenticity and honesty and with such warmth and affection that the film's 88-minute running time feels like a mere cinematic blip.
The story centers around John Hollar (Krasinski), a struggling New York City artist suddenly forced to navigate the smalltown ways he'd long ago left behind when his mother, played with her typical perfection by Margo Martindale, is struck by a serious illness that rocks the entire family including Ron (Sharlto Copley), her divorced son who lives in the basement, and husband Don (Richard Jenkins), whose business is simultaneously about to go under.
If it sounds like The Hollars is filled to the brim with cinematic cliche's, well, it is. In fact, it gets even more riddled with smalltown cinematic stereotypes including the presence of Rebecca (Anna Kendrick), John's pregnant girlfriend who doesn't seem quite to know how to deal with John's growing disenchantment with life and her, and the presence of Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), John's attractive ex-girlfriend who is now married to the more than a little jealous Jason (Charlie Day), who just happens to be a a nurse at the hospital.
It's all remarkably familiar, isn't it?
Oh yeah, it is.
It also works.
It works precisely because this ensemble cast acts like an ensemble. They find the authenticity in the relationships, the right touches of humor in the humanity, and a surprising degree of sweetness that elevates The Hollars above its familiarity and formula and into the realm of that rare dramedy that leaves you satisfied with the journey and appreciative of the time you've had with the family.
First and foremost, The Hollars is incredibly well cast. Krasinski and Kendrick make for a believable coupling, partly because they both so completely relax into their characters and partly because both actors vacillate comfortably between wry humor and utter sincerity.
It's not surprising, not at all, that both Richard Jenkins and Margo Martindale shine here as a long married couple who are likely mismatched yet have long ago committed to the journey anyway. Jenkins' performance is one of quiet honesty, portraying Don as a man with a quiet, almost transparent sense of loyalty yet whose nuances reveal a rather remarkable depth. Martindale, who somehow seems to be both an acclaimed actress and an under-appreciated one, gives a heartwarming performance as a woman both frightened of her uncertain future yet glowing in her maternal presence.
The film's most surprising performance may come from Sharlto Copley, perhaps most known for his work with filmmaker Neill Blomkamp and whose efforts to find mainstream success have for the most part disappointed. Copley is rather exceptional here as Ron, whose inability to let go of his marriage seems more borne out of an aching loneliness than an attachment to his ex-wife or her youth pastor boyfriend (played sublimely by crooner Josh Groban).
It is, of course, reasonable to wish for The Hollars to have been an even greater film. The cast, most assuredly, would have been up to the task. While Strouse's script is riddled with worn out plot threads and paint-by-numbers familiarity, there's something to be said for his ability to infuse the story and its characters with richness and humanity in the midst of it all.
So, again, it sure is all familiar yet it all resonates with such emotional honesty that you're unlikely to care that you've been down this cinematic road before.
The Hollars opens in limited nationwide release on August 26th with indie distributor Sony Classics.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic