The patch of rural Kentucky that American Hollow methodically turns is poor but fertile ground, growing big families and persistent problems that the locals confront with a particularly American combination of rural understatement and hot-blooded, often self-destructive intensity. Documentarian Rory Kennedy (yes, of those Kennedys, and the maker of several respected docs about women and children) worked her way into isolated Saul, Kentucky, and the over-40-strong Bowling clan, producing a rare problem-people doc that chooses complicated truth over simple message making.
Like the family it documents, Hollow flows from a single stream, the Bowlings’ 67-year-old matriarch, Iree. One of those strong, ambulatory-oak-type grandmothers that no folksy family seems to be without, Iree shows off her family tree with a graceful unpretentiousness that has little use for face-saving white lies. She introduces her husband Bass and almost all of their 13 children with visible pride before turning to their various failings.
We meet Lanzo, Iree’s Prozac-popping, root-gathering son, and his teenaged progeny Clint, a wiry Wu-Tang Clan fan who wants to marry his sweetheart Shirley despite not having a dime to his name. Lanzo beats his son down verbally while trying to suggest that the kids should wait a bit, and Clint hits back with the familiar fury of hard-luck adolescents everywhere. But when Clint sets a date, his family ponies up the money for the marriage license anyway, Hollow turning the collection of a mere $35 into moving, wrenching drama.
Then there’s Iree’s son Edgar, who is jailed and seems headed for more trouble despite having gotten a bum rap, and her granddaughter Samantha, who’s shadowed by the husband who threatens to kill her on a daily basis. But just when it seems these people are irrevocably mired in bad luck, Hollow lights up with some bright, deeply human glow. Iree shows off the luminously beautiful quilts she makes; laughter and good food abound around a reunion table; and Iree’s weekly trip to her Pentecostal Holiness church gives off preternatural, spirit-catching heat. Hollow takes both the good and bad with admirable openness, looking to slay not just Deliverance but also the faux-confessional, white-trash excesses of talk TV. To Kennedy’s (and Iree’s) credit, the Bowlings are never reduced to their hand-to-mouth, patchwork circumstances; their eager openness never erases any darker truths.
American Hollow was a hit at the last Sundance and the accolades it received feel justified while you’re sitting there mutely fascinated by the trials and tribulations unfolding on screen. You come to see (or, more truthfully, imagine) certain symmetries to Hollow‘s own existence in the world: the Bowling women’s clear willingness to work with Kennedy becoming an extension of the gendered, generations-long work women put in nurturing hearth, home, and memory. Hollow does seem to upend stereotypes about poor white rural folks, but there is something easy about the upbeat, life-affirming angle, how it turns every glimmer of joy or inner life into the stock victory for the human spirit (replete with jangly banjos). It’s no surprise that people in all kinds of fucked-up situations maintain enormous amounts of dignity, self-awareness, and humanity, making American Hollow‘s larger tragedy all the ways those qualities can count for nothing, especially when you’re poor and your husband’s prone to drink and you’ve nothing to your name except the stories you tell.