The extremely specific subgenre of magical-realist adventures about kids who cope with familial trauma by retreating into fantasy worlds full of monsters—see also: 2009’s Where The Wild Things Are, 2016’s A Monster Calls—gets a new entry in I Kill Giants, the debut feature from Danish filmmaker Anders Walter. But there’s one obvious difference between those films and this one: This time around, the emotionally distressed preteen is a girl.
Not only that, but protagonist Barbara (Madison Wolfe) is allowed to be nerdy, anti-social, and aggressive in ways that would be unthinkable for a female character a couple of decades ago. It’s heartening to think that this film might be helpful for young girls who prefer D&D to Fifth Harmony and are hungry for fictional characters who are as confused and complicated as they are. In general, the film’s feminist bona fides are stellar; not only does it pass the Bechdel test, but virtually all the film’s dialogue is spoken by female characters. Beyond the characterization of its complex anti-heroine, though, I Kill Giants doesn’t stray too far from an established collection of story beats, stretched thin over a slightly too-long 106-minute run time.
We open with Barbara running nimbly through the forest in her signature denim jacket and bunny ears, smearing plants with a neon pink goo we soon learn is a new formulation for giant bait. She’s clearly only comfortable when she’s alone, a personality trait that Wolfe, already a seasoned actress at the age of 15, conveys by tensing up whenever another character enters the frame. A true social outcast who fights back against bullies with clenched fists and cutting remarks, Barbara is a source of eternal exasperation for her older sister, Karen (Imogen Poots), who’s taking care of the family for reasons initially left unexplained. She’s also a source of intense interest for Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana, in tired, makeup-less Mariah Carey-in-Precious mode), a school psychologist who’s determined to get past Barbara’s combative persona to find the sensitive, creative girl she imagines is underneath. Barbara couldn’t care less about any of them, and remains focused on her mission to protect her Long Island seaside town from monstrous creatures no one else has ever seen. Only one other person knows the extent of her plans: British transplant Sophia (Sydney Wade), the only kid in school who’s willing to indulge Barbara’s weird obsessions.
Walter’s filmmaking bears a distinct Spielbergian influence, equally evident in the film’s adventure sequences—particularly a scene where Barbara runs from an aggressive creature across an abandoned train car, windows shattering behind her as she goes—and in the sentimental scenes. The latter are where I Kill Giants may lose adults without much of a personal connection to the material, as the metaphor of “monsters = personal tragedy” isn’t fleshed out enough to provide any real surprises, and the particulars of Barbara’s personal fantasy world are derived from her life circumstances in ploddingly direct ways that do a disservice to the otherwise imaginative mythology. To Walter’s credit, he does hold back on the more groaningly unsubtle reveals until almost two-thirds of the way into the film, and keeps the mystery of how real Barbara’s giants really are until the very end.
When the time comes for Barbara to simultaneously face her demons on a literal and metaphorical level at the end of the movie, yes, it’s sappy as all hell. But honestly? As the strings swell, and the rain pours down, and Barbara’s magical CGI hammer glows as she prepares to take a swing at a gruff CGI giant that resembles a cross between Liam Neeson’s humanoid tree in A Monster Calls and one of the kaiju in Pacific Rim—in the moment it all, well, works, thanks largely to Wolfe and her portrayal of a difficult, terrified, brave, lovable girl.