I Kill Giants movie review: the terrible burden of secret fears

I Kill Giants green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A movie as thrillingly weird as its protagonist. We are totally enrapt by the wonder and the terror of her imagination, and the power of it to create joy and solace.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about girls and women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

I Kill Giants is not a fantasy movie. It’s a drama about fantasy: about the power of stories to help us understand our fears and cope with our anxieties and escape from our pain, at least for a little while. But in a rare creative conjunction, this movie is as thrillingly weird as its protagonist, 12-year-old Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe: The Conjuring 2, Joy). We have no doubt that there are no actual giants for her to kill, despite all her intense research and preparation for this task, and we know that her small Long Island coastal town is in no danger of being stomped on, as she keeps urgently insisting to the adults and kids around her. But we are as totally enrapt in Barbara’s obsession as she is. As Barbara herself likely understands — she’s far from stupid — we get that, no matter how wonderful and terrible Barbara’s own little world is, it’s all just an invention. But we also simultaneously share her joy in it, and the confidence boost that comes from feeling strong in body, mind, and spirit. Even if it’s just a delusion. (But it’s real. Giants are real. And they are coming. Why won’t anyone listen?)

I wish I had seen a movie like this when I was a kid. I would have clung on to Barbara and her exploits like a life raft.

Few movies about children and the brawn of their imaginations have ever captured this duality so beautifully. Even fewer films have centered a girl and her creative fancies, and her rage and her helplessness. I wish I had seen a movie like this when I was 8 or 9, or even 12. I think I would have clung on to Barbara and her exploits like a life raft.

Because we are so with Barbara and so complicit in her need to escape, we do not understand for a long while precisely what she is trying to deny about the reality of her life. We see that she is bullied at school — by, interestingly, a giant of a fellow student (Rory Jackson), who towers over Barbara — and has no friends because she’s such a weirdo. We know that her home life is a bit of a disaster, with a mean teen brother (Art Parkinson: Kubo and the Two Strings, San Andreas) and an adult sister (Imogen Poots: Frank & Lola, Green Room) who is frazzled between her demanding job and trying to take care of her siblings. We wonder if perhaps their mysteriously absent parents are at the root of Barbara’s pain, but it’s a distant notion.

The proper placement of giant lures is essential if one is to be a successful giant killer.
The proper placement of giant lures is essential if one is to be a successful giant killer.

Instead, we are far more concerned with whether her latest attempt at a potion to lure giants will be successful, whether her bike rides into the woods to test them will result in dangerous encounters with the creatures (or others; there are other monsters to be on the lookout for, too), and whether she will be able to convince new-kid-at-school Sophia (Sydney Wade: Sherlock, Doctor Who) of the truth of the danger from giants. We worry about Barbara’s meetings with the school psychologist, Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Live by Night), because while she seems nice, she’s maybe a bit too nice, you know, like she’s only humoring Barbara.

This is an ambitious and accomplished first feature from Danish director Anders Walter — his 2013 “Helium” won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short — and from screenwriter Joe Kelly, working from his acclaimed graphic novel of the same name (with artist J.M. Ken Niimura). It’s an absolute crime that it is not getting a wide release in either the US or the UK: this is a sensitive yet still rollicking adventure, one with beautiful and eerie visuals that deserve to be seen on a big screen. And its smart and complicated portrait of a child’s emotional turmoil is something that could genuinely help lots of kids, and lots of grownups understand kids better by reminding us of how confusing and miserable growing up can be. Barbara is a character who should be iconic, looming large in pop culture, not the niche cult figure she is destined to be.

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