'I Kill Giants' Is a Sensitive Film About a Nerd Queen Giant Slayer
Following in the footsteps of dark fantasy coming-of-age tales like Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants is the story how “nerd queen” Barbara (Madison Wolfe) slays a metaphorical dragon and grows up in the process.
Barbara is bullied daily by her cruel classmates but instead of bringing her down, their taunts serve only to galvanize her steadfast determination to be different. In her mind, they are clueless and weak, not realizing it is she who keeps the kid-eating giants out of their cozy beach town with her uncanny power. Embracing her eccentricities and bending them to her will, Barbara is the master of her own domain. Donning her battle gear—rabbit ears and a homemade Norse hammer—she lays traps and mixes up magic potions to keep the pernicious creatures at bay. It is her occupation (and preoccupation) day and night.
She’s not necessarily misunderstood. In fact, she makes herself pretty clear. Both at school and home, Barbara declares that she doesn’t need anybody. She doesn’t even like anybody. As her older sister Karen (Imogen Poots) struggles to support the family (we find out why there are no adults present partway through the film), Barbara belittles her and makes life even more difficult than it has to be. She dismisses her classmates as idiots leading empty, meaningless lives. While she’s certainly the most unlikable heroine to come along in quite some time, Wolfe manages to imbue Barbara with enough humanity to make us care and to want to see what happens next.
A couple of people do try to poke through Barbara’s brittle shell. A new classmate Sophia (Sydney Wade) and a school psychologist Ms. Mollé (Zoe Saldana) both see something in the self-proclaimed giant-killer that no one else does. Independently of one another, they chip away at Barbara’s bristly exterior and little by little, a portrait of a sad and lonely child begins to peek through the cracks. She’s an intelligent, artistic, and curious young lady and there’s just something about her that makes them want to know her better.
As the story unfolds, we are led to wonder whether Barbara is actually seeing into a parallel world, if she’s just a grandiose liar, or if she is actually in the early stages of schizophrenia or some other serious mental disorder. Unlike the other dark coming-of-age fantasies referenced earlier, I Kill Giants takes a more somber and grounded approach while adding a satisfying dose of suspense and food for thought. While you probably wouldn’t think of The NeverEnding Story and Billy Elliot in the same moment, you’ll notice certain familiar elements from both in I Kill Giants.
In case you’re wondering: Yes, we do get to see the giants. They lurk in the wooded areas around town, they wade in the sea, and they peek into the windows of the cottage where Barbara lives… they even go so far as to cast ominous shadows above the stairway outside her bedroom and whisper her name in the dark. But she won’t be deterred from her hunt. As she says, “There are times when you have to ask yourself: Am I going to live life as a coward or a warrior?” Whether they’re real or imagined, the imposing giants are a thrill to watch. Plus, the movie is gorgeously shot and most of the action takes place in a beautiful Belgian beachside location (doubling for a Nantucket-like fictional U.S. town).
I Kill Giants is nimbly directed by Anders Walter (an Oscar-winner for his short film Helium), while the screenplay is adapted by Joe Kelly from his graphic novel. In the book, Barbara is much younger. Making her an adolescent for the movie is a good idea—it puts her into a profound and formative stage of life tweens can relate to and parents can remember. While the film isn’t played for laughs there is a wry undercurrent of humor running throughout.
Although it’s written and directed by men, all of the main characters are female, including the bullies, and the champions. Speaking roles for male characters are minimal. Whether this will minimize the appeal for boys, I’m not sure. (But did I mention there are giants? That should level the playing the field quite a bit!)
On the not-so-great side, the movie starts to feel too long about three quarters of the way through. Then there’s a flurry of activity towards the end, which reveals the true source of Barbara’s troubles and then wraps them up too-neatly in a big bow. Still, those are minor complaints since this is not your usual kids’ movie.
There is some strong language as well as mature themes (not sexual and there are no drugs or anything like that; but it doesn’t flinch from examining some of life’s harsher realities). It may not be appropriate for kids younger than 10 or 11—it’s going out Not Rated but I’d put it at an edgy PG.
I Kill Giants is a terrific and heartfelt film, definitely worth checking out on the big screen.