Review by Dan Skip Allen
Sometimes movies can move you in ways you never thought possible. I have just seen a film that wasn't on my radar, but has profoundly affected me. I've seen many movies about WWII and the Jewish side of the war — where they were persecuted and put into concentration camps, such as Auschwitz or Berkanow. Avenue of the Giants is one that tells its story in a unique way I didn't expect.
Herbert Heller (Stephen Lang, Avatar, Don't Breathe) is a man who has overcome a great ordeal during his childhood as a Jewish citizen living with his parents in Czechoslovakia. When the Germans came to their city, they herded all of them into trains and took them to a number of different concentration camps, including Auschwitz in Poland. This film uses a two-hander to tell his harrowing story of survival at the hands of the Nazis
While telling his own story to a teen photographer, Abbey (Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade, My Best Friend's Exorcism) at a recovery center, he insists she share her own traumatic story, which is why she was in the center in the first place. What comes next is a story I never thought would happen to anyone, let alone a teen girl. Fisher and Lang trade off telling their stories for the entire length of the film.
With Lang’s portion of the movie, there is a flashback aspect of the two stories. With this is a muted look and various clothes and hairstyles that fit the time period. Once his story gets to the concentration camps, the look of the people gets considerably more gaunt and withered. They have no hair, and many people have cuts and bronzes all over their faces and bodies. Taylor didn't spare anything regarding the feel of the film. It was quite brutal to watch at times.
Fisher’s storyline is set in the present time, but there is also a slight flashback aspect to her story. Why she's in the recovery center focuses mainly on her friend and herself when they go out in the woods among the redwood trees and get drunk. There is a lot more to this story than meets the eye, though. Teens have a hard time growing up as it is, and Fisher's character has more problems than most kids her age. Issues with her parents are just the tip of the iceberg for her. Understandably, she has a hard time telling her story to this man.
The two storylines were so different, but in a strange way, these two people from different walks of life and worlds entirely needed one another to get their secrets out in the open. The writer/director Finn Taylor chose a great way to tell these individuals' stories. It made for a better film that way.
Avenue of the Giants refers to the national park that the characters in the film visited on occasion. It's the woods where all the redwood trees live, and some key elements of Fisher's character's story take place. I can see multiple purposes for the title regarding Lang's character and his survival. Rarely does a film title mean so much in regards to the overall story or stories it's telling.
Avenue of the Giants was a moving story of survival, while also being a story of domestic trauma. The two distinct storylines were very different in their approaches from the writer/director, but the two characters needed one another to overcome the secrets they were holding onto. It's a very good film with difficult themes, and I hope as many people as possible will have a chance to see this film. It was a pleasant surprise to this film aficionado.
Avenue of the Giants premiered at the 2023 Hamptons International Film Festival.