The last summer of adolescence is a popular subject for filmmakers. Those bittersweet weeks between the last day of high school and the moment when you and your friends scatter to your respective fates represent a shift in life that feels as monumental as it is fleeting. Small wonder, then, that capturing the ineffable beauty and sorrow of that common experience is so popular in cinema. David Raboy’s thriller The Giant sets itself apart from similar stories with its moody lyricism and striking formal command. Exploring memory, grief, and the trauma of growing up, the film turns the fear of adulthood into a monster that lurks in the storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
The story focuses on Charlotte (Odessa Young), a high school graduate whose boyfriend Joe (Ben Schnetzer) disappeared shortly after her mother committed suicide last summer. When Joe reappears, girls Charlotte’s age start turning up dead in and around their small Georgia town. The mystery of the girls’ murders serves primarily as a backdrop to the main story rather than its driving force. Though the eerie menace imbues the whole film with suspense, Raboy is more interested in Charlotte’s psyche than he is in the plot mechanics of a whodunit. The Giant focuses primarily on Charlotte’s relationships with the people she will soon leave behind: her grieving, disconnected father Rex (P. J. Marshall) and her best friend Olivia (Madelyn Cline). Olivia knows better than any other character how quickly their lives will change after summer ends, and she clings tightly to Charlotte as she delivers poetic, wistful musings on the fear and melancholy of saying goodbye to your childhood.
The Giant is a perfect distillation of small-town Southern summers. Most of the sound in the film comes from the ubiquitous song of cicadas and the expansive silence of the night sky. Everything is coated in a sticky sheen of humidity, from the actors’ skin to the light itself. Brake lights and fluorescent signs are blearily streaked from both the heat of summer and the gauziness of memory. Smeared candlelight lends a sense of unreality that complements the odd timelessness of Charlotte’s final summer at home. Raboy continues the dreamy moodiness of the film in his striking imagery and murky shadows. Darkness and neon compete to render the characters in hazy suggestions rather than clear portraits; their personalities are well-drawn, but visually they seem to be fading away. Just like childhood friends who are about to leave each other forever, it’s as if the viewer is struggling to remember what the characters look like even as we’re looking at them.
The Giant is David Raboy’s feature debut — he wrote, directed, and edited the film — and it is remarkably assured. The script is lyrical and dreamy, focusing on small character moments and elliptical conversations that capture the surreal timelessness of the summer between high school and the rest of your life. The editing makes the whole film feel like the viewer is slipping in and out of Charlotte’s memories. Raboy frequently uses double exposure, literally layering Charlotte’s experiences on top of one another, and his languid pacing is occasionally punctuated by surprisingly swift cuts. These choices capture the poignant paradox of the last summer of adolescence: those precious weeks fly by as if they’re mere seconds, but the nights feel like they last forever. The air is still and hot, and the universe seems full of possibility at the same time that the weight of it all threatens to suffocate you. Everything lies ahead of you and nothing lies ahead of you.
Eric K. Yue’s cinematography is similarly astonishing. When Charlotte and Joe stand on her front porch and finally confront the question that’s been bothering Charlotte all night — why Joe came back to her after being gone for a year — the urgency and intimacy of the cinematography knock the wind out of the viewer. Up until this point, we’ve only seen them in profile or from behind, lit primarily in murky shadows punctuated by the occasional neon smear of streetlights. When they lay their emotions bare, however, the viewer sees both of them head-on under the warm glow of a porch light and gets a good look at Joe’s face for the first time. His woozily romantic confession — “I just needed to stand in your light again” — captures the depth of feeling that you experience when you’re standing on the precipice of adulthood.
The film’s dreamlike tendencies are grounded by the naturalistic performances. Each actor handles the oblique dialogue with a skilled realism, but Young and Cline in particular stand out as Charlotte and Olivia, respectively. Young is searching yet resigned, worn down already by too much loss in too brief a period of time. Olivia’s lines on paper read as wise far beyond her years, telling Charlotte: “It won’t always be this sweet, and one day we won’t know each other anymore.” Cline gives Olivia such an earnest sweetness and a desperation to hold onto the past that the viewer utterly believes every word she says. We keenly feel her grief and fear as the end of summer rushes upon her.
This fear is woven throughout the film. In an early scene, Charlotte, Olivia, and their friends hear a girl screaming. They later realize that she was one of the victims of the mysterious killer. Later on when Olivia leaves a party and drives off drunk, Charlotte fears that she’s about to become another victim and calls her repeatedly to make sure she’s okay. In a surreal and terrifying moment, Olivia’s outgoing voicemail message gets increasingly sad and panicky. She recites the same words, but their tone and cadence change subtly each time Charlotte calls. Like most of The Giant‘s horror, this moment sneaks up on the viewer. Just like so many of Charlotte’s friends who are rapidly leaving adolescence behind, the viewer doesn’t realize what’s happening until it’s already over. The fact that it’s only chilling in hindsight doesn’t make it less frightening, though; it only makes it more heartbreaking.
Ambiguous and affecting, the melancholy thriller The Giant is the cinematic equivalent of a lightning bug in a jar. It represents the fleeting joy and beauty of summer and the grief of its impermanence. Adolescence slips out of our fingers before we know it; the lumbering giant of adulthood — and all the loss that comes with it — is always waiting for us on the horizon.
The Giant is available on demand on November 13. You can watch the trailer here.