With a wind of lightly plucked guitars and melancholic folk melodies at its back, The Hollars delivers small-town family drama in the familiar Sundance-indie mode that’s remained ubiquitous since films like Garden State (2004), Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and the like rose to prominence. John Krasinski stars and once again sits behind the camera following his scrambled 2009 directorial debut, 2009’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, this time to greater success.
The difference-maker in Krasinski’s second film is that the script, written by Jim Strouse, is decidedly more grounded, warm and modest than the experimental David Foster Wallace anthology on which his first effort was based. It’s a much better fit this time around. The Hollars is formulaic, but not to a fault; every indie trapping, from the nutty quirks of the central family members to the perfect dramedy ratio of heartache and irreverent humor, is delivered with disarming sincerity. The characters feel fleshed out, and the front-yard, kitchen-sink drama feels real. Will the film expand your mind? No. Will it make you feel good? Absolutely.
With the same level-headed, unassuming charm he brought to The Office, Krasinski plays John Hollar, an emotionally at sea New York writer who flies back to his tiny hometown when his pregnant girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick), informs him that his mother, Sally (Margo Martindale) has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He arrives at the hospital to find the rest of the family gathered round, each of them bringing their own set of personal catastrophes to the sad gathering.
Sally hasn’t seen John in a while and, like most matriarchs, her favorite pastime is worrying about him the rest of the family. Her husband, Don (Richard Jenkins, phenomenal), is a panicked, guilt-ridden mess, rocking back and forth as he blames himself for not getting his wife to the doctor when the symptoms first arose (“I thought it was a weight thing!”). John’s brother Ron (Sharlto Copley) has a contentious relationship with just about everyone, his anger problems stemming from his ex-wife, who he’s still pining for and has custody of their two kids.
Beyond the thin veil of composure John hides behind, he’s actually no better off than the rest of them. He finds himself feeling troublingly apathetic toward his relationship with Rebecca, and seeing his ex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) with her possessive husband (Charlie Day) only further complicates their situation. Krasinski is a natural straight-laced leading man, but there’s an undercurrent of restlessness and anxiety to this particular performance that makes it feel more dimensional than expected.
Each actor plays to type, from Day and Copley bringing manic energy to Martindale and Jenkins lending old-soul gravitas, and as a result, each scene, no matter the combination of players, feels dynamic and smooth. It’s another example of the movie finding success by coloring inside the lines with, if you will, high-end crayons. Strouse’s script is accessible, clear and powerful. It’s generic stuff on paper, but he and Krasinski trust the actors to bring extra life to the on-paper emotions, and they almost always follow through. More than anyone, Martindale elevates her role, expressing dozens of emotions in a scene about Sally’s fear of losing her hair in a hospital haircut.
If anything weighs The Hollars down, it’s Krasinski’s muted visual style. The film is cinematically flat, at times making it feel more like the TV shows Martindale frequents than a big screen-only affair. You’d expect more attention would be paid to making John’s hometown a character in itself, but the parks, diners and drug stores we see seem like they could have been plucked from just about any American small town from California to Delaware. Almost as troublesome as the visual blandness is the music, provided by alt-folk star Josh Ritter (which Krasinski plasters all over everything), often halting the emotional thrust the actors work so hard to build.
The music and visuals may not have a great deal of movement and momentum to them, but the characters’ journeys do. Ron’s crazy-man attempts to sneak in visits with his kids invariably lead to run-ins with their reverend step-dad, Dan (Josh Groban), and the resulting exchanges are some of the most entertaining in the movie, with Ron looking for a fight and Dan just smiling back, effortlessly diffusing the desperate attacks. Their back-and-forth is good for a laugh most of the time, but the relationship actually grows quite naturally and arrives at a place that feels sweet and, more importantly, earned. The Hollars is full of finely-tuned character work like this, and Krasinski demonstrates a real knack for getting his actors to gel and flow and do their jobs well, no more, no less.