Synopsis – Barbara Thorson struggles through life by escaping into a fantasy life of magic and monsters.
My Take – While marketing teams have often been accused, rightfully so, for revealing a bit too much about the film via their promotional campaign or simply through an official trailer, hereby affecting if not completely spoiling the final outcome of a film. A perfect example of such a scenario would be the WB produced DC film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). However this feature film from first-time director Anders Walter finds itself in a completely unique scenario, in the sense, the marketing aspects of this film have been playing up its Harry Potter connection ever since its first look arrived, mainly due to the involvement of producer Christopher Columbus, and has been touted all across the board as a fantasy tale that might seem like a perfect pick for kids who love magic and adventure, and of course adults, who would be up to witness some literal giant-killing, what’s surprising is that the film instead turned out to be a different beast all together.
Yes, this is not a fantasy film, at least not directly, and any comparison to the widely successfully series around the boy who lived would be a major disservice to this film which is out to tell vastly different yet important kind of story. Instead this film tells a tale of monsters in real life through a portrait of a child’s imagination, and her fearless tackle of darkness and emotions, and an escape from pain, at least for a little while. While the concept of a child creating an imaginary world as a retreat from reality isn’t new to either films or literature, for example films like The Wizard of Oz, Pan’s Labyrinth, Where The Wild Things Are, A Bridge to Terabithia and most recently director J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, have taken a similar route, but in a rare creative conjunction, this film is as thrillingly weird as its protagonist.
While its well-intended, heartfelt and in its small-scale fashion surprisingly ambitious, but it’s also content to cheat its own premise and withhold its genre pleasures, which effectively undermines the whole journey, a result of which there is every chance that it will unfortunately get lost in the crowd.
The story follows Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe), who despite being dubbed nerd queen by the towering mean girl Taylor (Rory Jackson) and her bullying schoolmates, enthusiastically embraces her eccentricity, traipsing around a small American coastal town in a bedraggled state sporting rabbit ears and fiercely discouraging contact from anyone else. Mainly, as she’s ignored by her gamer brother and overworked older sister Karen (Imogen Poots), who is too busy working to spend time with her, and her parents are conspicuously absent from her life. But on her own, Barbara is a warrior and a sorcerer, as a self-appointed savior of her community, armed with an unflappable bravery and a pink pocketbook that contains her mighty magical Warhammer, she finds giants, hunts them and kills them.
However, things start to change when Barbara is befriended by Sophia (Sydney Wade), a new girl who has just moved to America from Leeds, and ends up being fascinated by Barbara’s fantasy-world but doesn’t buy into it and begins to search for a way to help the girl, a desire also shared by the school’s new therapist, Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana), who kindly but insistently tries to counsel her. But Barbara being the self-reliant and cynical teenager, she’d prefer Taylor’s taunts and threats to Mrs. Mollé’s interventions any day of the week, because how could they possibly grasp the peril they’re all in with giants hanging around their borders.
This is an ambitious and accomplished first feature from Danish director Anders Walter, whose 2013 short film Helium won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short, and from screenwriter Joe Kelly, who is working from his acclaimed graphic novel of the same name with artist J.M. Ken Niimura. While the film does start off hilarious and rollicking adventure with beautiful and eerie visuals, the moment the cause of Barbara’s deep unhappiness is revealed, the film topples into full-blown, soft-focus tearjerker mode, exhorting us to embrace life and arguing that we are all so much stronger than we think. It’s exactly the kind of sentimental mush that the earlier, tougher Barbara would have rejected out of hand.
However, the film’s unconventional portrait of isolation and denial is commendable, and when it settles, there is a certain poignancy. Surprisingly, the film stands as one of the most unafraid and imaginative films of recent memory to portray the thorny truths of teen depression. To merge such a difficult collection of issues with visual fantasy is what makes the source material and resulting film special experiences. The film paints a sensitive portrait of a struggling youth, and lots of grownups understand kids better by reminding us of how confusing and miserable growing up can be.
The narrative escalates skillfully with risks and implications that hammer, literally and figuratively, the foreboding mystery of unseen pain, both physical and emotional, peaking with a perilous and heartbreaking denouement that makes it all worthwhile. It’s just a shame that the film was released so soon after A Monster Calls, which tells a similar story although better. Sure, both films take slightly different approaches to the subject matter – children dealing with family problems with the help of gigantic monsters – the correspondence between the two is uncanny and impossible not to notice, especially if you were a fan of A Monster Calls before you knew about this film.
Albeit completely shrouded in fantasy it always keeps its feet firmly placed on the ground, blending a well-crafted bridge between the childlike wonder of imagination and deep mature feelings, although, not as successful as the films I cited earlier in blurring the lines between what might only be in the main character’s mind and what is really happening, the film nevertheless works as an examination of how children use make-believe as an escape mechanism. As a writer Kelly deserves credit here as he has 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 prove her point.
Director Walter also creates truthful relationships – even if they are crudely overemphasized by the melancholic pop-orchestral soundtrack. The friendship between Barbara and new-in-town Sophia, is the film’s strongest hook, and it’s interesting to monitor their concurrent development. The middle-schooler’s interactions with her sister and school counselor anchor the film in reality and prevent Barbara from drowning in fantastical introspection. Director Walter also effectively blends the fantasy and real-world elements into an engaging whole, upping the suspense whenever Barbara ventures out to set a trap or narrowly escape a giant attack.
Being an independent feature, so it keeps the monsters off-screen as much as possible for obvious budgetary constraints. But just as the film’s hero must fight her bully and ultimately, herself, she must also take on a few titans. Unfortunately that is also the reason why the film does earn itself some negative points. Throughout the whole film, director Walter flirts with two distinct possibilities, one that Barbara’s right, and giants really are responsible for natural disasters and calamities all the world over, or that the real world has been subsumed by her fantasy world. For disclosure’s sake, the truth is slanted unambiguously in favor of the latter over the former, but Barbara’s firmly devoted to the fantasy, and at least on a surface level, the film is too.
How else to explain her near-miss encounters with her target, a lumbering behemoth she runs into first in the woods, and later on in a railway yard where she throws down with her enemy and causes serious property damage in the process? Sure, there is a cut and dry explanation to all this, but that is what pulls the rug from beneath the film. The problem is the film tries to be both a fantasy feat and an important drama, resulting in an identity crisis, which might end up alienating a large section of the audience. However, the right audience will embrace the film, mainly due to 15-year old Madison Wolfe‘s magnetic performance who shines through both settings.
The relative newcomer having previously appeared primarily in minor TV and film roles, easily carries the whole film with a mix of spunk and fragility and showing how even the most self-sufficient of loners sometimes craves companionship. Although she’s surrounded by a talented cast of adults she still manages to shine the brightest. In supporting roles of Imogen Poots and Zoe Saldana demonstrate how talented these actresses are. Though never taking away from the spotlight of the 15-year-old lead, these stars breathe more humanity into an already very human tale. Younglings Rory Jackson and Sydney Wade also leave their mark. On the whole, ‘I Kill Giants‘ is a dark, quirky and fascinating character-driven story which despite its lack of originality remains a transformative story with a powerful message.
Directed – Anders Walter
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 106 minutes