David Raboy wrote, directed and edited The Giant, his first feature, and those multiple credits turn out to be one or two things too many. His imagistic approach, precise direction and ambition make him promising. As this psychological drama goes on, though, it becomes increasingly dull and shallow as it charts the unraveling of a young woman in emotional distress.
Charlotte (Odessa Young) is spending her last summer before college in her small Southern town, where we quickly learn that — take a deep breath — her mother has died the year before, the boyfriend who disappeared after having caused some mysterious trauma for her now seems to be back, young women are being murdered and there’s a big old spooky abandoned house in the picture to boot. Clinging to Charlotte’s point of view, the film starts with intriguing dreamlike visuals but soon becomes overwrought and obvious.
Those early dream images are stunners, and Eric K. Yue’s cinematography captures them beautifully. The camera tracks as if in a horror film, moving toward a ramshackle, isolated, pillared white house. Inside, the house is dark and empty, yet crisp bright daylight shines through a glass door. Outside, in a wooded area, a woman hangs herself from a tree. Unfortunately, Charlotte’s voiceover in this sequence lands with a clichéd thud: “Why can’t I wake up?”
Directors as terrific as Terrence Malick and David Lowery have built films on such glorious images. Here the approach feels derivative, mostly because the psychology beneath it is so hollow. It takes no time to notice that Charlotte is the only one who sees the old boyfriend, Joe (Ben Schnetzer). Raboy deliberately takes us inside Charlotte’s mind, clueing us in that she is delusional and grieving for her mother. But the screenplay teases other factors, too, notably Joe’s involvement in Charlotte’s becoming unhinged.
Those reasons aren’t concrete enough to make the character fully formed. Young’s performance is sincere and determined. She looks suitably frazzled and successfully depicts a woman trying to stay in control while slowly losing her grip. But Charlotte remains an idea of psychological trauma, not a person living it.
The visuals that are not part of Charlotte’s dreams and memories have a dimmer, less distinctive, more low-tech indie look. And as Raboy piles on themes, the film unravels along with its heroine, the screenplay ricocheting around several half-baked subjects. There is a slim coming-of-age story, as Charlotte and her friends party during their final days together. When she goes riding with Joe in his car, he is apologetic — we never really know why — and recalls their first kiss at a carnival in eighth grade. Her best friend, Olivia (Madelyn Cline) is a near-constant presence, worrying about Charlotte, but the character never goes beyond that one note. And Charlotte’s father is the town sheriff, which might have been convenient during a murder spree. But he mostly hangs around their kitchen looking morose because the body count is rising fast.
Eventually Charlotte and her friends end up at a party at the abandoned house, apparently where Charlotte and her family once lived. The hints of Gothic horror, signaled at the start and ignored through most of the film, suddenly take over.
Somewhere buried in this morass is a theme about trying to recapture and deal with the past. But it’s not enough to suggest that all this chaos reflects the mess inside Charlotte’s head, especially when the accumulation of problems is so unilluminating and the pacing so static. And the atmospheric approach isn’t strong enough to sustain the drama.
Scene-for-scene we can see that Raboy knows what he’s doing as a director and has a vision. As an editor (with Dean C. Marcial credited as additional editor), he allows those scenes to become repetitive and the film’s trajectory flat. He doesn’t give us lucidly defined ambiguity, but a film that plays like the work of a film student with technical ability, who needs a fresher, more cogent screenplay and probably a different editor.
Production Companies: Camera Ready Pictures, Bogie Films, Vixens, Extra A Productions
Cast: Odessa Young, Ben Schnetzer, Jack Kilmer, Madelyn Cline
Director, Screenwriter, Editor: David Raboy
Producers: Dennis Masel, Daniel Dewes, Rachael Fung, Gary Farkas, Clement Lepoutre, Olivier Muller
Director of Photography: Eric K. Yue
Production Designer: Amber Unkle
Costume Designers: Brooke Bennett, Blake Olmstead
Music: Ari Balouzian
Casting: Kate Geller, Jessica Kelly
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)