It’s not by accident that the title character in the movie HOLLY is just one extra consonant away from the word holy. The new Dutch film from writer/director Fien Troch is making the film festival rounds and has rightly been chosen to be showcased at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. It may be a delicate, tiny independent feature with an unknown cast but its themes are ginormous in their way as an outcast teen becomes imbued with what seems to be otherworldly intuition. Is it a miracle? Has she been touched by the angels? These are questions raised by the film and it makes for an absorbing cinematic experience, one I’m still chewing over days later.
Holly (Cathalina Geraerts) certainly doesn’t seem like the type of girl to be chosen. She’s 15 and mousy, the type of kid most people barely notice. Her classmates don’t think much of her except that she smells and seems a bit witchy because of her etherealness. Her less-than-malodorous scent is due to coming from the wrong side of the tracks and sharing a shitty, ramshackle apartment with her dreary mother and sister. They spend most of their days blithely staring at the TV. It’s not much of a life.
But then one morning, Holly has a premonition and she calls in absent from school. She tells the school official, “Bad things are going to happen today” and stays away. What could have seemed like a mere excuse becomes instantly prescient when that very afternoon a serious fire breaks out in the high school, The blaze destroys a large portion of the building and kills several students.
Anna (Greet Verstraete), Holly’s teacher, becomes preoccupied with her student’s foreboding message and feels there’s something to this young girl. The educator invites Holly to join her volunteer group to help the locals work through their grieving and Holly becomes an instant hit. Her presence seems to bring an almost Christ-like zen to the meeting, with the mourners suddenly feeling a sense of peace and calm within their reach. Holly’s touch even seems to soothe them like a sort of emotional balm. For the first time in her life, Holly feels appreciated and even her boyfriend Bart (Felix Heremans) feels something move through him. He becomes confident, even cocky for the first time in his life, and smarts off back at the bullies giving him trouble at a local park.
It isn’t long before the townsfolk start seeking Holly out, hoping to be transformed in their lost lives by her touch. At first, Holly is shocked by such reactions but quickly learns to appreciate matters when these ‘patrons’ start pressing large dollar bills into her hand. It’s her first experience with money and she takes advantage of the windfall by buying herself jewelry, a new pair of sneakers, and a cropped, chic fall jacket. Fittingly, that frock is pure white and gives her even more of an angelic quality.
Troch keeps the intrigue throughout, never wholly answering whether Holly’s gifts are divine intervention or just coincidence. Maybe it’s all in everybody’s heads, for that matter, a vacant populace looking for some form of salvation. A few even start resenting Holly’s success, most notably Anna who becomes jealous that others are putting demands on her popular pupil.
The film is one exceedingly thoughtful and sincere meditation on God and spiritualism, as well as a subtly evocative coming-of-age story. Ultimately, Troch asks what Holly believes about herself as well as what we see in ourselves. The filmmaker keeps a steady hand on all aspects of the material, never getting histrionic or outsized, yet willing to heroically probe the uglier sides of human nature as well. HOLLY is a graceful film, albeit one filled with incredible power. Much like the teen girl herself.