We’re stronger than we think.
While the main creative force behind I Kill Giants is unquestionably screenwriter Joe Kelly (whose limited comic series of the same name alongside artist J.M. Ken Niimura is the basis for his script), director Anders Walter‘s Oscar-winning short Helium shows he’s hardly a stranger to its subject matter. These two found success through the delicately complex experience had when a child confronts his/her as yet abstract conception of death wherein the infinite expanse of one’s imagination can manifest a path towards understanding. Few people find it easy to cope with their impending mortality, so of course those who’ve yet to truly live life would seek a reprieve from such an immovable force. Rather than watch them drown beneath that debilitating fear, however, art can prove they’re never alone.
It’s no surprise then that the two films I thought about while watching Walter and Kelly’s adaptation were A Monster Calls and Where the Wild Things Are. I Kill Giants plays like a hybrid of sorts that’s just as cognizant of needing to keep things darkly resonate as both. It’s okay for a family film targeting an audience that would call its lead (Madison Wolfe‘s Barbara Thorson) a peer to toe the line between fantasy and nightmare because children can handle it. Better yet, children need it. We can’t isolate today’s youth from the full spectrum of human emotion when schools have begun holding drills to prepare for the possibility of a domestic terrorist shooter entering the building. It’s not enough to entertain. You must also leave a mark.
And this one does exactly that with a bullying subplot, family squabble flare-ups, and an authentic depiction of our knee-jerk rejection of love when blinded by a desire to label it betrayal instead. Even without the main plot’s metaphorical reveal, young Barbara’s journey in and out of reality hits home because of the strength—both via genuine courage and a manufactured façade of escapist heroics—she possesses in the face of abject despair. We aren’t watching her retreat from the tragedy that’s been laid at her feet through no fault of her own as much as mask everything with a more palatable and therefore solvable sheen to challenge its power. Whether or not the giants Barbara lures into her traps with jelly are real, their potential threat is.
So we must invest in her mission. We must accept the lunacy in order to look beneath the surface at what’s really going on. The former is steeped in the type of mythological lore utilized by the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop platforms she so desperately wants her brother and his friends to enjoy with her instead of videogames. And Barbara isn’t afraid to lay it out for the world to scoff because in her mind she is saving them from the apocalypse and thus doesn’t have the time to hold their hands with comfort and lies. Her town is about to be overrun by giants of wood, ice, and rock. Creepy “harbingers” exit the shadows, baiting her to give up by saying she’s too weak to fight back.
This is why she doesn’t come home right after school: orchestrating her plans in the woods with the confidence that having a secret weapon (inside her self-embroidered and glittered handbag) affords. This is why she doesn’t have any friends (no time) and why she pushes away anyone who might want to be (with the ramblings of a madwoman) while pushing those who don’t even further. Barbara’s big sister (Imogen Poots‘ Karen) might be fraying at the edges playing single Mom to her and their brother, but she’s reaching the edge of sanity herself thanks to the extreme weight of being the only one who knows what’s happening. The kids at school laugh when she explains her “truth.” Her psychologist Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana) only wants to mine deeper.
Newcomer Sophia (Sydney Wade) suddenly shows up as a potential ally—someone to confide in without having to worry about saying the wrong thing. Finally someone will listen to her without a dismissive tone once “the game” is over or patronizing smile looking to disarm long enough to decipher the truth within the fantasy. But rather than provide Barbara an outlet to leave the noise behind, this burgeoning friendship only makes the spotlight upon her shine brighter. Her human adversaries become bolder until her trademarked sardonically biting retorts transform into punches as patience and calm completely disappear. The more people hear what she’s saying, the closer she comes to remembering why she’s dreamt up these giants to become the tangible entities with which to defeat for victory.
Kelly does a wonderful job leaving this reveal in the dark. We can infer what’s happened by noticing what’s absent from the Thorson equation, but we don’t have to because there’s enough to chew on regardless. The specific why of Barbara’s mission is the big boss lying in wait as she defeats the many minions along the way. Before she can go behind the curtain again (and allow us a peak), she must battle the demons presently encircling her. Give the filmmakers credit because they have written this young girl with a perfect mix of commendable sass and heartbreaking deflection. We laugh when she embarrasses her gym teacher right before growing sad in the knowledge that she’d willingly endure punishment to maintain the delusion that’s keeping her together.
Walter is up to the task too, upping the suspense whenever Barbara ventures out to set a trap or narrowly escape a giant attack. I Kill Giants is an independent feature so it keeps the monsters off-screen as much as possible for budgetary constraints as well as atmosphere. Just as the film’s hero must fight her bully and ultimately herself, she must also take on a few titans whether we’re the only ones able to see them as she does or not. They’re the world’s evil: hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and more. They’re reapers come to sow for whom we now simply ignore or accept. Barbara therefore puts the task of saving everyone on her own shoulders because doing so ensures she’ll save those she cannot go on without.
Wolfe delivers a memorable performance, building upon her already sprawling portfolio in cinema and TV. She goes toe-to-toe with two very good actors in Poots and Saldana, holding her own in some instances without even being visible (a moment wherein she’s speaking to the former’s Karen with dolls above a sheet resonates in its silence). And when the truth can no longer be hidden, she finds that steely position between anger and resignation to cry without crying. It’s her brilliance in these heavy moments of raw emotion that render the final fifteen minutes—an epilogue of sorts—overly saccharine to the point of chore, though. But while the film isn’t as subtle as A Monster Calls or Wild Things, it captures the messiness of suffering just as well.