Hamptons Film Fest 2023 Review: A Bridge is Built to Stand the Test of Time in Finn Taylor’s “Avenue of the Giants”

There’s no getting around the fact that “Avenue of the Giants” isn’t an easy story to tell, one that writer/director Finn Taylor doesn’t know exactly how to begin. Rushing through an introduction of his two main characters Herbert (Stephen Lang) and Abby (Elsie Fisher) who cross paths in a hospital without actually meeting, the latter returns to the children’s apparel shop he’s run for decades in Northern California, throwing up a rare half-off sale sign after getting the news that he’s expected to die soon, while the latter can be seen milling about Redwoods Recovery, with her therapist Ruth (Robin Weigert) clearly unable to get through to her. A phone call that seems inconvenient at first for Ruth turns out to be a blessing when a mutual friend asks her to see Herbert, who has something to get off his chest after spending much of his life refusing to speak about his boyhood at Auschwitz, and instead of conducting sessions with him herself for reasons that are mysteriously vague, she asks Abby to talk to him as recounts his history so it isn’t forgotten.

At first, this modern framework seems like an awkward fit for the film Taylor wants to make, taking audiences back to Prague as the Nazis were beginning to file in as Herbert was in his youth and to do so without compromise in other regards, it appears the concession is to hire name actors for some more palatable present day scenes. However, the specter of death and its narrative possibilities have loomed large over Taylor’s films since his first, “Dream with the Fishes” used its opening to pull a hopeless lead played by David Arquette from the brink of suicide by a drifter threatening to take his life from him during a stickup and subsequently, the director was the natural choice to find a way to make a film out of “The Darwin Awards,” about the dumbest ways to die, and in that context, a little patience with the awkward set-up is well worth it when “Avenue of the Giants” reveals itself to be an unusually thoughtful consideration on survivor’s guilt, invested equally in observing Abby opening up to Herbert after a traumatic event of her own as him to her.

“If you tell me about your scar, I’ll tell you about mine,” Abby promises somewhat tenuously when Herbert first sits down across from her as he takes notice of a patched-up incision on her neck and once the two get to chatting, the means of getting there starts to fall away, as does the fact that Lang seems a little too young to be a Holocaust survivor even with the admonition that the film takes place in 2004. In appealing to the same millennials that found it endearing rather than appalling that Hazel and Gus shared their first kiss in the attic where Anne Frank hid in “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Avenue of the Giants” doesn’t diminish the seriousness of its subject, but nor does it hold past treatments of this history sacred when Taylor and European cinematographer Alexander Surkala (Antonio Riestra is credited with filming the U.S. scenes) film scenes set during the Holocaust far less solemnly than any cinematic predecessors, feeling as if it’s constantly chasing after Herbert (Luke David Blumm), whose father is adamant Czechoslovakia won’t fall to the Nazis and before he knows it, his wife is stitching yellow stars of David on all their clothing.

It’s not brutality that the filmmaker is interested in conveying so viscerally with a jittery camera as the whiplash of the experience for Herbert, who is further confused by his own gifts for making himself indispensable, picking cabbage for supervising commandants that’ll make the best sauerkraut and working first aid where he knows he’ll have the easiest access to drinking water for himself, while the rest of his family appears doomed, and although the audience might feel the same way moving from the present to the past and back again initially, the film draws an unexpectedly sharp parallel between the large-scale atrocity and those suffered in silence on an intimate level as Herbert and Abby start to comfortably confide in one another, sharing a burden they thought they’d have to carry alone. In the general push to subvert expectations of the genre, the not-so-surprising reveal that the film is based on Herbert Heller, a real-life Holocaust survivor who made outreach to younger generations a major part of his later years, comes across with a true gentle jolt when the film not only extends the reach of his story beyond his own ability to tell it, but clearly honors his belief that how to connect is as important as the connection itself.

“Avenue of the Giants” will next screen at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 11th at 7 pm at Rafael 1, October 12th at 2:30 pm at Sequoia 1 and online from October 16th through 22nd on the festival’s streaming platform.

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