Firestarter is an Empty Coming-of-Rage Story

It takes a full four minutes for a single line of dialogue to be uttered in the new Firestarter. On the surface, four minutes of silence to introduce the main characters is not particularly noteworthy, but it speaks to the larger issues with the film. An overwhelming feeling of emptiness exists in all aspects of Firestarter. A sort of haphazard execution that’s entirely uninterested in delving into a young girl’s uncontrollable fire-starting superpowers, which act as a metaphor for her coming-of-rage story.

Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) are raising their daughter, Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), in a quiet Massachusetts town. It’s an unusual family because of their supernatural abilities. Andy is telepathic, Vicky is telekinetic, and Charlie has inherited a hybrid of her parents’ abilities, as well as pyrokinesis. Andy and Vicky were part of an experiment run by an organization called DSI when they were in college. They were injected with a serum called Lot Six that enhanced their powers.

Charlie with her hair flying
Ken Woroner/Univer – © 2022 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

Andy and Vicky are in hiding from DSI after they escaped from the program with Charlie. They have no cell phones or WiFi because that would help the organization find them, but this lack of technology leads to Charlie being bullied at school. She’s teased for not knowing about Google and for generally being “weird.” The bullying increases, and it leads to Charlie losing control of her pyrokinesis powers in the school bathroom. The explosion is like a beacon for the DSI, and the family goes on the run to protect themselves.

Most confusing about the film’s final form is that it lacks even an ounce of horror. With names like John Carpenter, Stephen King, and Jason Blum all involved, there’s an expectation of scares. Given some of Blumhouse’s other fare, it might not be a high expectation, but there’s nothing remotely frightening about Firestarter. No jumpscares or genuinely terrifying moments. Instead, there’s a feeling of emptiness that permeates every aspect of the film.

What is Firestarter if not a horror movie? The horror genre has a long history of creating real sources of anxiety and fear, like puberty, manifesting itself as monsters, demons, or superpowers. It’s a time-honored means of processing these real-life struggles. There’s inherent horror in coming of age, because of the way a young person’s life is fundamentally altered. And yet, Firestarter isn’t interested in considering the anger that’s building within Charlie from the bullying at school, her isolation, and the loss of her mother. Charlie’s powers aren’t anything more than a science experiment from a shadowy organization.

Charlie sits at the dining table with a lighter

In recent years especially, young girls coming into their own through supernatural means is becoming abundant. Look no further than Stranger Things, Hatching, Thelma, I Am Not Okay With This, and others. It feels like a long overdue reclamation of anger for young women. For so long, they’ve been raised with these limiting ideals that a girl shouldn’t get dirty or be loud. It’s reductive and takes away their agency by telling them they should be acting a certain way to make others feel more comfortable.

Despite the fact that the line was ruined by the trailers and the fact that it has no meaningful buildup, there is still something so cathartic about Andy telling Charlie to “burn it all down.” He’s spent the entirety of the movie trying to keep her safe and insisting that her powers have to be hidden for her own good. The scene does not reach the highest point it could have given the emptiness that surrounds it, but getting to see the true effects of Charlie’s pain is a sight to behold. The imagery of Charlie finally letting loose, her hair flying all around, and her firepower on full display harkens back to the young, angry girls before her.

Andy and Charlie hide under a desk
Ken Woroner/Univer – © 2022 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

Firestarter has always felt like the first draft of King’s more well-known Carrie. The two share similar young, female protagonists who are struggling to control their supernatural powers, but Carrie succeeds where Firestarter doesn’t. There’s a depth to Carrie and the manifestation of her anger through her telekinesis that is completely lacking in Charlie. In both Carrie and Firestarter, the true evil is humanity. It’s evidenced in the bullying Carrie and Charlie face and in DSI’s experimentation on humans to create weapons. Firestarter isn’t interested in looking at itself that critically, however. DSI simply exists to provide the conflict that pushes Charlie and Andy to the final showdown, and the bullying is merely the inciting incident.

Firestarter may never reach the same heights as Carrie, but it’s not for lack of potential. Had there been even the smallest interest in exploring Charlie’s anger, or had the film leaned into a campier alternative, the lasting impact of Firestarter may have been different. Not even Carpenter’s twinkling synth score can save the day.

Firestarter is playing in select theatres and streaming on Peacock.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Amy Adams her Oscar.

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