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Review: I Kill Giants – “A thoughtful, emotional tale of grief”

A film that follows a teen who misguidedly blurs her all-too harsh reality with fantasy to deal with impending trauma isn’t a new trend within cinema. It’s been a subgenre of fantasy, bookended with 1939’s Wizard of Oz up until last years heartwarming A Monster Calls. That is until this latest addition to the fold – I Kill Giants, a film so subtle in its execution that it too often risks being underwhelming, some moments are too quiet and lose significance, but is ultimately saved by its emotional center and outstanding lead performance.

Spoilers ahead.

Based on Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura’s graphic novel, Anders Walter’s debut feature follows a young teenage girl called Barbara (Madison Wolfe), who lives in a large house situated in eerie solitude on a cliff beach in New Jersey, USA. Like those before her, she doesn’t fit in with anyone at school, too consumed by her interest in dungeons and dragon’s inspired lore, and her quest to kill a variety of giants who pose an extreme threat to her town and its inhabitants. Despite her sister’s (played by Imogen Poots) several attempts to bond with her, including showing an interest in playing Dungeons and Dragons with her, Barbara always chooses to face her battles alone, convinced no one will understand her.  She is an anti-social, moody tween who is on a quest to tackle the impending chaos of giants, that unbeknownst to her block something much more real and painful.

Barbara regularly chooses solitude over any help she is offered, though she slowly opens up to her new friend Sophia (Sydney Wade), who has just moved all the way from Leeds, UK, and her psychologist (Zoe Saldana) who tries every method in the book to help her through difficult times. As Sophia and Barbara’s psychologist find out more about her, they show great persistence in helping her deal with reality, even involving themselves in her fantasy with hopes of helping somehow. Both Wade and Saldana have great moments onscreen, and its interesting seeing Saldana play something relatively grounded in comparison to her well-known roles as Gamora in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and a Na’vi in Avatar, but their characters feel very secondary as Wolfe’s feisty portrayal of “tweendom” manages to capture the complexities of loss and teen life, and give an impression of those who are troubled in their youths and don’t follow the crowd. Likewise, Christopher Columbus’ producing credit feels like a misplaced marketing scheme, which has attempted to link the very different Harry Potter series to this film. I Kill Giants is a much more expressionistic take on magic and the folklore of giants.

As it turns out, Barbara’s quest to kill giants and save her small community has an emotional double meaning. Her mother has an undisclosed terminal illness, and she is scared to see her deteriorate in health. In her mind, if she kills the giants, she saves her mother. She avoids everything real to do this; she chooses to make a fort in the basement where she plans her attacks, records the successfulness of her baits, and listens to baseball history. This allows her to avoid walking past her mother’s room and catching a painful glimpse. She is fearful and fearless, strong and weak. While her performance is great throughout and the films saving grace, the plot is somewhat thin on the ground, permitting emotional moments to lose their could-be impact, ending up feeling manufactured and drawn out.

Away from performance and plot, there is some great visual story telling at hand. Walter again proves himself worthy of his academy award for his previous live-action short Helium in 2013. Wide open and airy locations are used effectively to further embody the loneliness of Barbara, feeling bleak in colour but colourful in rich fantasy, though the multiple giants she comes across throughout her adventure feel quite bland in design. Sound is used effectively also, as moments of extreme distress fall silent on our ears – though this device begins to feel overused by the time the credits fall.

Whether or not this film is as successful as A Monster Calls, or Bridge to Terabithia, its poignant female teen anti-hero is worth watching alone.  It’s great to watch a film where the vast majority of speaking roles were played by women, who were not thinly painted characters and whose interests weren’t centered around romantic themes. I Kill Giants is a thoughtful, emotional tale of grief that should stand as a testament to other filmmakers that you don’t need spectacular special effects to create wonder and suspense on a small, touching scale.

I Kill Giants is out in cinemas on Friday 6 April from Kaleidoscope Entertainment.

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