I don’t get to EVERY film in theaters especially since some movies are shown in extremely limited capacity on the big screen. I often ignore these movies simply because I don’t have the time to catch up on all of them over the course of the summer and fall, but one film has intrigued me all year that was finally available at my local RedBox for me to rent. That film is “I Kill Giants”, a small fantasy drama released in March on an extremely limited distribution. After watching the trailer, reading other reviews and researching the graphic novel on which it was based I found that the idea resembled one of my favorite movies from 2017, “A Monster Calls”. Since I loved that movie so much and I just happen to be on vacation this week I took some time to view “I Kill Giants” myself and see if it’s any good or a waste of time. This is my review of “I Kill Giants”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“I Kill Giants” is based on the graphic novel limited series of the same name by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura and focuses on a young, independent and socially pretentious girl named Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) who enjoys Dungeons & Dragons and is an outcast at her school for her quirky, fantasy-themed fashion and her tendency to isolate herself from her fellow students and the adults who she feels are intellectually inferior. Barbara lives with her supportive sister Karen (Imogen Poots) and her brothers and spends her downtime embracing a fantasy world she has created believing that natural disasters and death are spawned from the presence of giants who she is preparing to defeat. This includes setting up traps and trying to “earn” her giant killing weapon which she affectionately names “Coveleski” after the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher who was nicknamed “The Giant Killer”. Barbara meets a new girl in town named Sophia (Sydney Wade) who seems to embrace or even believe Barbara’s fantasies about giants while a new school psychologist named Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana) tries to bond with Barbara to understand the source of her frustrations. As Barbara becomes more and more frightened by the impending “giant invasion” her friendships and relationships are strained forcing Barbara to face both her fantasies and her realities head on for the first time.
A lot of this movie is put on the shoulders of one child actress, Madison Wolfe, who portrays the lead character Barbara Thorson. It’s a rather deep role and one that requires a lot of control and commitment to pull off and Wolfe does a very fine job of it. Barbara is an intriguing young woman, one who sees through what she perceives as the flaws of the world around her and the people she refuses to waste her time getting to know. She shows a good grasp of her own faults as well but is also rather blind to some of her quirks that hurt her more than help her. Wolfe gives Barbara an ego, one that ironically is worse that many of the people she sees as self-important in their own rights, which creates a perfect representation of the flawed heroine. Barbara believes she’s a savior to the world but hasn’t even begun to understand how little control she has and that serves as the core of Wolfe’s character here. She does an amazing job presenting us with a frustrated young woman who is dealing with a specific demon we, the audience, don’t get to see until late in the film. Most of all she seems to truly believe in the giants she is fighting, and the film doesn’t ever really confirm whether or not this is a result of her mental state or a real thing. Madison Wolfe had to find a balance between a mentally scarred person and someone who is just frustrated by being misunderstood without making her feel justified or crazy. It’s amazing how well she accomplishes this making Barbara Thorson both relatable and spectacularly human.
I think the first problems with “I Kill Giants” is probably the lack of character development for the minor roles. I mean we get some, but most of it is forced, rushed or bland. That doesn’t mean they’re bad characters though. Imogen Poots plays a decent role as Barbara’s frustrated but supportive older sister Karen who is clearly out of her element taking care of her siblings yet also has much more life experience than her sister and brothers and is not afraid to show it. Sydney Wade does an alright job as Barbara’s friend Sophia even though she’s not given a whole lot to work with. She’s also a fish out of water and serves as a friendly supportive partner for Barbara in her time of need. She’s someone that Barbara feels like she can talk down to and relate to without driving her away. She’s someone Barbara can protect yet count on, like a sidekick to a superhero. Probably the most standout secondary role for me thought is Zoe Saldana’s Mrs. Mollé who is new to Barbara’s school and puts in effort to make Barbara her “project” of sorts, seeing her as a child in need and truly wanting to make a change in her life. Saldana is always a great actress and her ability to portray an adult who relates and truly seems to care for the person she is trying to help, especially a child, with sincerity and conviction is incredibly noteworthy. She adds an interesting dynamic to the cast that is sorely needed to balance out Barbara’s fantasies and fears.
I said at the beginning that I found “I Kill Giants” to be very similar to “A Monster Calls” and, in many ways, it is. In fact, in all the RIGHT ways it is. “A Monster Calls”, which was based on a book, helped shed some light on the inner emotional workings of a young boy dealing with the concept of mortality. “I Kill Giants” works the same way, bending the boundaries of what is real and what is not to delve into the psyche of a young girl dealing with her own roadblocks in life. It’s an age appropriate representation of how someone in the prime of their youth would try to work these problems out. I’d say though that “I Kill Giants” takes this concept a little further as we see how Barbara’s struggle with reality goes beyond her home life. It also bleeds into her personality, her willingness to confide in or relate to others, and even plays into her lack of maturity as she believes there are ways to stop death or justify random acts of destruction from Mother Nature or other causes.
“I Kill Giants” continues a trend of fantasy films that I personally first experienced with “Bridge to Terabithia”. These are movies that take the human experience of young, emotionally vulnerable youth and tries to bring them to life through fantastical elements and “I Kill Giants” may be the most fantastic of them all so far by using the titular giants to personify grief and emotional turmoil for a young woman convinced she needs to tackle these demons on her own. The fact that the film never actually reveals whether these giants are fake or real also leaves the narrative open to even more interpretation. Is this a legitimate fantasy story or is this young woman dealing with major mental issues and projecting her fears and problems into an imaginary evil? We never know and that’s the beauty of it because in the end the point it’s trying to make is that using one’s imagination can be an important part of coping. It’s one of the earliest ways we learn how to interpret the world. It doesn’t always have to be a sign of mental illness.
I also heavily enjoyed the atmosphere and imagery in this film. The special effects used for the giants and the scenery aren’t ALWAYS top notch but they’re very good for what this film is meant to be. The detail put into the giants gives them a truly ferocious, yet somehow charming appearance which may or may not have been done on purpose to represent that sometimes reality is both beautiful and scary at the same time. The color pallet and the choice of settings along a shoreline were also fitting of the story and the themes presented in it. Almost the entire film is shrouded in this grey-scale color that speaks to the depressing nature of Barbara’s mental state only brightening up after she has come to peace with certain elements of her life and the challenges she is facing. The use of an ocean as the location of her secret hideout is also a seemingly subtle representation of the sheer size of her emotional turmoil and the weight of the challenge she has set upon herself. Like most good movies of this type “I Kill Giants” benefits from a great blend of fantasy and reality and the lack of clarity between the two. This allows the audience to fill in the blanks and presents them with imagery and a setting that supports the emotional depth of the story without defining what’s real and what’s not. It’s a great design choice that has worked before and works just as well here.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While I give “I Kill Giants” some great credit for its many different elements the one thing that irked me above all others was how formulaic it all seemed. Maybe that’s because I’m so familiar with “A Monster Calls” which a lot of people didn’t get to see, but I constantly came back to that film when watching “I Kill Giants” because a lot of the same elements are built in and save for having more character depth and a more all-encompassing emotional journey for the main character the basic storyline plays out almost exactly the same way. A young person dealing with a potentially life changing situation that no one but her could possibly understand embraces fantasy characters that may or may not be real in order to cope with their blossoming emotional maturity. It’s the same basic premise just with a fresh coat of paint. I fear that this could become a cliché unto itself eventually if movies keep taking this route. When you look at these coming-of-age fantasies a lot of them have tended to pander to the same basic life lessons and thus there’s a certain lack of inventiveness that’s starting to take its toll. “I Kill Giants” is a great movie for sure but I fear it has brought to the surface a flaw in its subgenre, that the concept can only go in so many directions before it becomes overplayed.
To go back to the “acting” portion of this review though another big issue with “I Kill Giants” is a lack of character development for the minor roles. Other than Zoe Saldana’s character we don’t really get a lot of backstory for anyone else in the film. We learn very little about Barbara’s sister Karen (although we do learn from a phone call she’s struggling to balance work and her at-home responsibilities), Barbara’s best friend Sophia seems to be just there at times and even the bully that taunts Barbara gets no backstory at all and just feels like a generic foe who dislikes Barbara for being different. We get a LOT of detail into who Barbara is and why her life is so complicated, but we learn little about those around her. To continue my comparison to “A Monster Calls” we learned plenty about the main character and got some depth to the people in his life although even in that film the bully was underdeveloped. Here the spotlight is all on Barbara and the lack of context or understanding for the rest of the characters does affect the final product. It makes everything seem a bit one dimensional and gives us only a small idea of how the world around her sees her obsession with giants. Do they think she’s truly crazy or just weird? Do they truly worry about her or is it their job to worry about her? We don’t know because the emotional depth ends at Barbara and for a film with so much to say I feel like there was plenty of room in the script and screenplay to say just a little bit more.
“I Kill Giants” for me is a fantastic if moderately flawed movie. I found it just as engaging and maybe even more emotionally impactful than “A Monster Calls” even if I still prefer the later and very much enjoyed its combination of fantasy and reality to present a young woman’s struggle with the pressures and unknowns of a life she is just learning she can not fully control. There’s a lot of depth and underlying context to pretty much everything going on in this film which makes for a powerful story filled with great imagery, well written if a little pretentious dialogue and all focused on a character whose journey to emotional maturity is an important one for viewers young and old to experience. It does have issues ranging from its slightly derivative nature to its lack of depth among it’s minor cast members and characters, but these are easily overlooked by how fun, engaging and interesting the final product turns out to be. It’s only the latest in a growing subgenre of coming-of-age fantasies that have intrigued me over the years and while it does shed some unfortunate light on the limitations of the formula it also brings out the best in what these kinds of films can be.