Let’s talk about Holden On, shall we? Any film that ends with a phone number for a national assistance organization is going to inherently leave you feeling like you’ve just watched some sort of after school special. And it’s actually not entirely unfair to call Holden On an after school special. It deals with a single protagonist, follows him through a very complicated issue that needs more exposure than it receives, and ends in one of two ways those kinds of specials always end – with the protagonist’s salvation, or death. But Holden On is an after school special in the way Still Alice was a Lifetime movie – sure, you can distill them down to that, but they are written, produced, and performed on a level that makes those comparisons sort of silly.
Here is a film that is so earnest about the message its conveying; so determined to get its point across and leave no stone unturned; so committed to its character’s journey that I have a difficult time faulting it for anything, really. I want to hug this film and tell it everything is going to be okay and make it feel as good as I can. And that’s not belittling, I assure you. It’s just the way I felt through the entirety of Holden On. Does that mean it’s a perfect film? Far from it – and we’ll get into that. But what it does mean is that the film did what it set out to do – to tackle a difficult subject matter and do so in a way that makes the viewer really think about that subject matter. And I did. I thought about it while watching it, and I thought about it afterwards. I even did some light research on the topic and became better informed. The movies that work make us active participants.
Set in the early-90’s in a rural Georgia community, Holden On follows our title character, Holden (Matt Fahey), over the course of a very turbulent two-years. Holden starts out as a golden boy. His parents (Greg Thompson & Kelly Finley) think he’s God’s gift; he’s a star on the high school football team; and he and his best friend Z (Steve C. Ellis) even spend most of their time watching Miami Vice and participating in the school’s D.A.R.E. program. Then something changes. Holden starts hearing voices and becoming unable to control his emotions. He starts slipping in every aspect of his life. Over the next two years, we follow Holden on a series of ups and downs and various journeys of self-discovery and re-discovery – through stints at rehab and institutions. In a way akin to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (stylistically not thematically), we see the devastating toll mental illness takes on a kid who had such a bright future and lost it in the blink of an eye. The Holden at minute one of the film is nothing like the Holden in the last shot.
The problem with the way director Tamlin Hall presents the issues affecting Holden is that they seem so unbearable and harrowing that we don’t entirely disagree with the actions Holden takes. They seem sort of logical, and I don’t know that that was the intent. I wanted to see more of Holden’s struggle to balance his mental illness with living a normal life. Instead, Holden is one way one day and something totally different the next. And I’m sure that’s what happens for a lot of people but, cinematically, it created an inability for us to see how Holden’s actions might affect those around him. All we see is how they affect Holden, and with the way his experiences are presented, what he does isn’t as unimaginable as one might want it to be. It’s an inherent problem with films based around singular issues – the issue becomes so much of the focal point (and the person suffering from them) that everyone else becomes collateral damage.
All of that said – Matt Fahey is quite remarkable as Holden. He has such a complicated job as an actor and his performance carries a lot of the weight that maybe the script can’t. He’s required to go from the boy next door who does have everything together to being the ‘new’ boy next door who has nothing together but is trying his best to fake it. Think about that. Think about what kind of juggling act that would be for any actor. Throughout, Fahey is never not believable, and his sweetness and even innocence make our inevitable journey towards conclusion a real stick of dynamite to the heart. It’s not often when a single performance can carry so much of a film on its shoulders, let alone a performance from someone new to me. It certainly makes me anxious to see where his career goes from here. As I said earlier, I wanted to hug him, tussle his hair, and let him know everything would be all right.
But please don’t think I’m raining down all over the director. What he’s done here is pretty special in that he’s made an after school special that feels both nothing and everything like an after school special. Again, that is not belittling. The words ‘after school special’ are not fighting words. What separates them is the skill with which Holden On was crafted. Director Tamlin Hall wisely keeps the focus squarely on our protagonist. With his D.P., Adrian M. Pruett, they bring a much needed visual architecture to the film that is textbook efficient storytelling. His sense of period is apt and I never once questioned that what I was watching was early-90’s. I also appreciated how he handled the rural Georgia setting. So often, folks in rural communities are painted in offensive or stereotypical ways, but here they are regular people dealing with regular problems. And that far from typical setting added a lot of texture to the picture. You can feel how personal this subject matter is to the director and you can tell that rubbed off on the cast.
For me, the real, tangible success of any film resides in whether or not you think about it after it’s over. Holden On passes that test with me. It gave me a protagonist I cared about deeply and put me through the emotional ringer, even though I knew it was going to happen the entire time. I was prepared for it and it still managed to leave me heartsick. I expect this film will have the same effect on audiences, particularly folks who can really empathize with what Holden is going through because they’ve either experienced it themselves or known someone who has. So let’s stop giving the term ‘after school special’ a bad name, especially if you can use that description and still have a film so fully realized in its ability to win you over. Holden On won me over. Now, I will release my bear hug on it, muss its hair, and send it back out into the world.
For more information about the film visit: www.iamholdenon.org.
Billy Ray Brewton
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