AMERICAN HOLLOW, documentary, 1999, 90 min.

American Hollow tells the tale of a close-knit Appalachian family that has changed little in the last 100 years.

American Hollow (1999)
Documentary [1 h 30 min]
Bascum Bowling, Clint Bowling, Edgar Bowling, Iree Bowling
Director: Rory Kennedy
Writer: Mark Bailey

This documentary follows the lives of the Bowling family as they fight to survive in dirt-poor Appalachia. Matriarch Iree has given birth to 13 children, but only two have left to seek better lives in Ohio while the rest have married and started their own impoverished families near home. Uneducated and unskilled, all are unemployed, and domestic violence and alcoholism pose serious problems. The filmmakers explore the family’s relationships through interviews and footage of their daily lives.  -wikipedia


Published: May 26, 1999

All things considered, Iree Bowling, the wizened matriarch at the center of Rory Kennedy’s fine documentary film ”American Hollow,” is pleased with the way her life has turned out. With her husband, Bass, this lean, weatherbeaten woman whose family has lived for more than a century in the wilds of eastern Kentucky, has brought up 13 children and is grandmother to more than 30. Now 68, she still has the energy to care for her bedridden mother, visit her mentally retarded sister, tend the large vegetable garden that sustains the Bowlings, pluck chickens and cook meals for her sprawling extended family.

Most of the Bowlings live within an hour’s distance from one another in a mile-wide valley between two mountains known as the hollow. The film, which follows a year in their lives, celebrates the clan’s vitality while also revealing the devastating effects of poverty and joblessness on several of its male members. One, who is chronically depressed, relies on Prozac that is sent to him through the mail. Over the years, many of the men have left the area to try to make a living elsewhere, but most have eventually returned to a place where food, shelter and emotional support are guaranteed.

How poor are the Bowlings? Early scenes follow two of Iree and Bass’s sons into the woods where they gather moss, blood root and ginseng to sell. The money they make is supplemented by Government welfare checks and food stamps. The Bowlings may be poor, but most seem to have televisions and cars. They wear the standard American casual wear of oversize T-shirts, jeans and baseball caps.

”American Hollow,” which opens today at the Film Forum, concentrates on three family dramas. One strand involves Iree’s and Bass’s son Edgar, who is arrested for trespassing and held in the county jail for 17 days when the family is unable to come up with $2,500 in bail money. The charges are eventually withdrawn. Another involves Samantha, Iree’s granddaughter, who is in the process of divorcing her abusive husband, Jody. Samantha, who is devoted to their two children, stoically tells of beatings and threats on her life, and we see the damage Jody wreaked in their trailer during one of his rages.

The most poignant thread follows Clint, a skinny, redheaded 18-year-old grandson of Iree’s who, against his family’s advice, is determined to marry his angel-faced 17-year-old sweetheart, Shirley. But when she breaks off the engagement, the brokenhearted Clint falls to pieces and eventually leaves the hollow to try his luck in Cincinnati, where an uncle has agreed to take him in.

”American Hollow” is a richly atmospheric movie that takes pains to emphasize the positive aspects of the Bowlings’ rural existence. If the film suggests a family pattern of spousal abuse (Iree’s mother was for years treated like a dog and beaten with a stick that was nicknamed Old Hector), it shies away from dwelling on the tougher aspects of this hardscrabble life. It doesn’t show the Bowlings coping with winter or carrying on the grueling work of planting, tending and harvesting crops in uncertain weather.

A too-brief scene in a Pentecostal church shows Iree and several family members in the throes of religious delirium, but the movie doesn’t examine the relation of their faith to the rest of their lives.

At the end of the film, Iree allows that she has done a good job of raising her family. The movie does a good job of showing us how difficult it is for the poor to transcend their backgrounds and move up the social ladder.

Produced and directed by Rory Kennedy; story editor, Mark Bailey; director of photography, Nick Doob; edited by Adam Zucker; music by Bill Frisell. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, South Village. Running time: 90 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Iree and Bass Bowling, Edgar Bowling, Clint Bowling, Shirley Couch, Samantha and Jody Canada and Lanzo Bowling.

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