There’s a scene in The Hollars where John Hollar (John Krasinski), having been called back unexpectedly to his small hometown, returns to a pond he visited as a child. In a nostalgic moment, he climbs onto the tire hanging from a tree branch that stretches out over the water and swings for a minute over the pond. Only for a minute, though, because it doesn’t take long for the branch break under the weight of an adult man, and John drops into the water. It’s a short scene, and certainly intended at least in part for comedic effect. But it also encapsulates one of the major themes of the film: sentimentality and nostalgia are all well and good, but you can’t stop real life from dropping you fully-clothed into a pond.
Those themes and the plot of The Hollars aren’t especially novel – in fact they seem like they could have shown up in a Zach Braff Kickstarter – but they’re meant to be universal. On the cusp of creating a new family in New York City with his pregnant girlfriend, John Hollar has to go home to Small Town, USA so he can sort out some issues with the family into which he was born. The tone in this movie is forgiving of and generous to the characters, though; everyone in The Hollars gets a chance to showcase their flaws, they also get a shot at redemption. Krasinski also directed The Hollars, and he spoke in an interview about his interest in making an uplifting movie about family. Working with a screenplay by Jim Strouse (Grace is Gone; New York, I Love You), he mostly succeeds, and The Hollars is emotionally satisfying. But the balance required to make a movie that is uplifting without being mawkish is a tough one, and the movie occasionally swings too far toward the outlandish for the sake of comic relief.
The tricky part of making movies in which people can see themselves and their families is figuring out how to make characters engaging so people watch the movie and aren’t bored, but also making them feel real enough that viewers can identify with them. Since most real people are too boring to make a movie about, it seems that often, “real” people as characters in movies get conflated with “fucked-up,” “self-absorbed,” and/or “miserable” people. The Hollars goes in the opposite direction – the people aren’t perfect, but they sure are trying their hardest! There are times when John’s brother in particular (Sharlto Coply) feels more like a caricature of a struggling divorced dad than an actual one.
The cast is strong, though, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The Hollars may be a comparatively low-budget movie, but terms like “low-budget” and “family dramedy” (along with maybe “independent” and possibly “directed by John Krasinski”) are catnip to a certain contingent of actors, so this movie has pretty much the exact people you’d expect would be in it. Of course Richard Jenkins plays the father, and we could have guessed we’d see Anna Kendrick playing the pregnant girlfriend, making an interesting character out of role that could have been pretty thankless. There’s a fun little role for Josh Groban as well, because of course there is (he’s actually pretty good).
But there’s a good chance you won’t really notice those people, because Margo Martindale is in this movie as John’s hospitalized mother. And frankly, once you sign Martindale, everyone else could pretty much coast. Her work does more than anything else to paint over the errors in the script or direction. The example that immediately jumps to mind is the scene where Martindale’s character is about to go to surgery. That scene takes a turn that could have easily been cheesy and over the top (probably some people will still think it is), but because of the way Martindale anchors it. Also, it’s worth-noting Krasinski has such excellent chemistry with Martindale that I briefly wondered whether their spouses were concerned about it. But I digress.
Sometimes a movie is good at being the thing that it is, and whether or not you like it just depends on whether you like that thing. The Hollars is pretty good at being a warm family dramedy. It’s genial and redemptive, if perhaps a little overly generous in dolling out redemption. It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you’re looking for something that’s more heartwarming and less War Dogs, The Hollars might be a good pick.