I KILL GIANTS
Directed by Anders Walter
This review contains mild spoilers.
In the book Homo Deus, the historian Yuval Noah Harari wonders if technology will ever know us better than we know ourselves. As it becomes increasingly intertwined with our lives, he suggests it won’t be long before the algorithms can predict how our behaviour and make increasingly personalised recommendations – finding just the right film or song for the right moment and directing us towards new favourite things. I mention this because I’d never heard of I Kill Giants until Netflix recommended I watch it.
I’m glad I did. At face value, and perhaps from its Harry Potter emphasising poster, I Kill Giants looks like a fantastical kid overcoming the odds adventure piece. In this case, the young Barbara (Wolfe), and her sidekick Sophia (Wade), defends her seaside town from hulking giants. Yet what we have is, ironically, something much smaller. For the most part, it’s a character-driven drama about dealing with loss and mortality. Think Life Is Strange meets The Troll Hunter. On the relatively rare occasions in which we see them, the titular giants are impressive (as well as ‘total dicks’). Though the film’s fantasy elements very rarely take centre stage, they are undeniably thrilling – providing an interesting tonal contrast to the more serious material about growing pains.
In an interesting use of dramatic irony, we understand from the start that these giants are probably not there. Yet against Barbara’s increasingly sad life, in which she’s an underdog, we’re never left wondering why this is the reality she wants to live in. The things she is afraid of aren’t necessarily physical – and are all the scarier because of this. They can’t be stopped or reasoned with. And so, she’s crafted a world in which they are so that she can control them. What’s good is we’re rarely asked to feel sorry for her – it isn’t manipulative or sentimental in the same way A Monster Calls is. Barbara is a compelling lead because she refuses to be cast as a victim. And while many will identify with her angst, we’re not asked to feel sorry for her for the most part. Walter wisely keeps some secrets from us so that at her brattiest, we can view her as unapologetically rude, dismissive and ungrateful. As adults, we know sometimes a good offence is the best defence, though it’s nonetheless hard to see her hurt other characters we care about. It’s not that she doesn’t have her pluses, too: she’s also headstrong, determined and very loving when she lets herself be. But the important thing is she’s a 3D character, neither defined by her vulnerability nor her strength, which made me care far more because she seems authentic no matter what the plot.
The dramatic beats land because they feel earned – Joe’s Kelly’s script is layered, serving the characters as much as the story. The relationships are complex, and in the absence of a concrete baddy, save for the local bullies, we learn about the situation from multiple perspectives. Like Barbara, Sophia is an outsider, and it’s touching to see their friendship flourish despite some well-handled moments of conflict when each seems to mistreat the other. The two actors have great chemistry and do the darker material without lapsing into over the top innocence. The two most famous cast members, Imogen Poots (who plays big sister/ reluctant mother figure Karen) and Zoe Saldana (as her councillor Mrs Mollé), don’t have many scenes, but those that they do they bring a lot of depth to. Some of the most powerful bits are these silent scenes where the people around Barabara try to talk her into letting her guard down. Both of these adult parts could be played as Mary Sues in the wrong hands since they are so benevolent, but the frustration both cast members convey ground them in something genuine.
There’s also good world building throughout. I Kill Giants is a film about childhood that captures the imagination of a kid. Bits like Barbara crafting giant bait from a combo of mushrooms, red liquid and a gummi bear warmly allude to the absurdity of her quest. Her various rules are also dead interesting, like how she leaves numerous trinkets up at school to guard it, pointing to a mind that’s both very troubled and intensely creative. An animated sequence toward the beginning, not dissimilar to a fantasy flick’s prelude, finds a way of upping the stakes without neglecting that its lore is something Barbara tells herself. It may be a single girl’s story, but what it symbolises means it’s also a tale that’s as old as time. And though there’s a slightly too literal explanation late on, involving baseball, the magic-realism aspect is handled with maturity and reverence.
The last third of this film is a transcendent, empathetic look at difficult emotions, as well as a well-done action set-piece. As she faces her goliath, Barbara stands for anyone who has had to find strength in the worst of times. We want to believe because we want to believe she can conquer the bad things in her life. “You are stronger than you know”. A potentially cheesy message that takes on a new meaning after a year of socially distancing, during which many of us have lost loved ones or had to confront our own mortality. It’s a stunning confrontation, and regardless of how real it’s meant to be in the story, you will be invested in the outcome. Because put simply, I Kill Giants is a little film with lots of heart. It’s a shame I didn’t know about it when it was at the cinema, but if you also missed it then it’s still well worth watching now, whether it’s a physical copy or through the afore-mentioned streaming colossus. Technology may be moving at a scary pace, though if it can give me recommendations this good, then it’s not all bad.