If you’ve seen the marketing for I Kill Giants – particularly the poster – then you’ll have likely already made up your mind on what to expect. If you’re a champion of the fantasy genre, the prospect of a young teen battling behemoths will pique your interests. However, if you consider yourself to be a more sober-minded cinemagoer, the briefest mention that this is from the producers of the Harry Potter franchise may have you walking briskly in the other direction. To both of you distinct cinephiles, it should be said that I Kill Giants – based on the graphic novel of the same name – is a lot more than either of you think it is.
On the outskirts of a US coastal town, teenager Barbara (Madison Wolfe, The Conjuring 2) roams a forest concocting potions made of fungi, moss and gummi bears. This is her bait, her giant bait. You see, Barbara is a giant killer and, in her own words, she literally saves the world every month. To those around her, Barbara is someone stuck firmly within her own imagination. Coupled with Tina Belcher-esque rabbit ears as a permanent fixture on her head, Barbara’s behaviour makes her stand out amongst her peers. She only has one friend in the shape of Sophia (Sydney Wade), a British immigrant who has recently arrived. If you can call a school counsellor an acquaintance, then there’s Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana), a psychologist who believes that Barbara’s tales of giant slaying are endemic of a much more grounded and deep-rooted issue. This issue can be found at home, where Barbara’s sister, Karen (Imogen Poots, Green Room), struggles to raise her and her brother.
Danish director Anders Walter – the Oscar-winning short filmmaker making his feature debut – successfully blends magic realism with teen drama in a way that allows a little wriggle room to explore what’s really happening. As Barbara charges towards her oversized foes, the film subtly and not-so-subtly shows that she is also desperately running away from something else. Indeed, if you are so inclined, you could take everything you see at face value and believe Barbara to be the only sane person in an insane world. You can also see that she’s just a scared little girl who has learnt to cut through her sadness with dialogue that wouldn’t sound out of place in a wizard’s mouth.
As Barbara, Wolfe does a lot of the heavy lifting, and does so with aplomb, ensuring that whilst Barbara pushes people away, the audience just wants to protect her. Equally, Saldana and Poots give nuanced performances as women desperately reaching out to the wayward teen from the sidelines.
Unfortunately, it’s the character of Sophia – and not the young actress, Wade – that gets the short end of the stick. As Barbara’s companion, her role in this tale boils to a constant repetition of the same scene. She’s enamoured with her new friend, Barbara does something strange, Sophia gets scared and runs away, only to return to do it all over again. If the screenplay by Joe Kelly – who wrote the graphic novel – wants to emphasise that Barbara is a loner with only one friend to her name, it would do well to, at the very least, let us see Sophia enjoying some time in her friend’s fantasy world, rather constantly being in fear of her.
It’s actually part of a larger problem. While the film’s fantasy elements are wonderful and Walters gives the few action scenes within some real weight, the film gets stuck in a rut for too long when it comes to the real world. I Kill Giants is a surprisingly sombre film and after a while, the melodrama does begin to feel quite heavy. Indeed, there are some difficult topics to tackle within the narrative, but it does itself a disservice by being too serious. No one is asking for outright belly laughs, but something to lighten up the tone would have served the film well. Nevertheless, this is an emotional coming-of-age tale wrapped up in a dark fantasy, and it’s undeniably well crafted. I Kill Giants is worth your time, despite its faults.