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I KILL GIANTS (2018) review

March 24, 2018

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written by: Joe Kelly
produced by: Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan, Joe Kelly, Nick Spicer, Kyle Franke, Kim Magnusson, Adrian Politowski & Martin Metz
directed by: Anders Walter
rated: not rated
runtime: 106 min.
U.S. release date: March 23, 2018 (limited, VOD/digital)

 

Here’s why an “I Kill Giants” movie could work: because writer Joe Kelly, who penned the graphic novel that this fantasy thriller is based on, also wrote the screenplay. One would think that would be an obvious decision, but it rarely happens. Granted, it’s not a guaranteed sign that the movie will be great, but it is a hopeful one, considering that big-screen comic book adaptations rarely ever have the writer of the source material serve as screenwriter (let alone writers who truly know the source material). In this case, it does indeed work and while the feature-length directorial debut from Anders Walter benefits from Kelly’s involvement, there is also a strong balance here of fantastical elements and the real-world themes and complexities the main character navigates, something that is not an easy feat.

Set in a coastal northeastern town in the States, “I Kill Giants” follows Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe), an unusual preteen loner ostracized by her peers for being straight-up “weird” due to her proclivity for minding her own business and immersing herself in her own imagination. She has more important things to do than engage in the inane conversations of her peers, like role-playing games, books and, most importantly, killing giants. She lays traps using homemade concoctions and hunts the various giants that lurk within the dense forests outside her town or the one that may be in the nearby ocean. Are these giants only seen by Barbara or are the other townsfolk aware of them? What is the track record of this self-professed giant killer?

 

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Those questions dissipate the more time spent with the spirited Barbara. There are other giants in her life, after all. Besides the evil Harbingers she sees,  which indicate the arrival of a supposed deadly giant, there is also school bully, Taylor (Rory Jackson), to contend with and the looming illness of her mother (Jennifer Ehle) that haunts her. When a new girl in school, Sophie (Sydney Wade), looks to Barbara for friendship, following the hunter on her unusual daily activities that involve preparation for a pending invasion of giants, the girl with the eyeglasses and bunny rabbit ears has to come out of her own shell and hesitantly accept this rare (much needed) friendship invitation. Outside of her fantasy world, Barbara’s older sister, Karen (Imogen Poots), is exasperated with the responsibilities of juggling family duties, like cooking and cleaning for her younger sister and their brother, while making attempts to connect with Barbara when she comes up for air.

At school, Barbara navigates one daunting prepubescent situation after another, unaware that she has a sympathetic ear available to her in the form of school psychologist, Ms. Molle (Zoe Saldana), a patient and intuitive soul relatively new to her position. Her eventual interactions with Barbara stand out, thanks to Kelly’s writing and how the actors deftly present an honesty to the kind of student/counselor scenes that have become quite familiar. Barbara’s whip smart replies mask her emotional shields and once Ms. Molle adjusts her approach a little, she is able to maintain the only reliable emotional presence for Barbara at this time in her life.

 

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Where the story goes from here is something you’ll have to discover for yourself. Yes, there are giants, one in particular Barbara must fend off with her magic storm hammer she keeps in her raggedy pocketbook, but there’s also one of the most touching and emotional scenes I’ve seen in a while between a mother and a daughter (oh stop, “Lady Bird” came out last year and nothing in that great film hits as powerfully as this scene) that really plucks the heartstrings in a genuine way. You don’t have to be a mother or a daughter to find yourself with a knot in your throat. It’s that scene, and a few select others that reinforce how characters matter in “I Kill Giants”, something that may be surprising considering this is a movie that relies heavily on creating a distinctive atmosphere.

On that note, the movie has an appealing timeless quality to the environment of “I Kill Giants” that sets itself apart from the type of stories we typically see middle school age children inhabit. It may have a modern-day setting, but you won’t find any kids (or adults, for that matter) texting on their smartphone or glued to “Insta” or Snapchat, something that is sadly the norm today, but in a movie it can be either overused as of late or just plain sad to see. Characters have enough to deal with here without being tethered to electronic devices. Probably the only device we see any of these kids attached to is a video game console Barbara’s brother, Dave (Art Parkinson, voice of Kubo in “Kubo and the Two Strings”) is hooked into, a source of contention for Poots’ Karen, who gets no help around the house. The dynamic of this barely functioning family is reminiscent of the kind of single-parent families typically seen in movies from the 80s, only in this case the eldest sibling (played by the consistently great Poots) is the one thrown into the responsible role.

Danish director Anders Walter, who won an Oscar for his Live-Action short “Helium” back in 2013, does a fine job bringing this 2008 graphic novel of the same name from writer Joe Kelly and artist J. M. Ken Niimura to the big-screen. It reminds me how the Oscar-nominated Shorts are seldom seen each year, but they serve as opportunities to discover great filmmaking talents that will one day make their feature-length debut. Ironically, “Helium” has a story that can be connected to “I Kill Giants”, in that both films deal with illness and death in a fantastical manner. Walter also reunites with his collaborators from that short, cinematographer Rasmus Heise and editor Lars Wissing, who add a considerable amount of distinctive style to Kelly’s storytelling.

 

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Comparisons to 2016’s “A Monster Calls” will be inevitable, since here is a story that also depicts a child wrestling with grief and bereavement, using imagination to cope with such feelings. Probably no one will be aware that Kelly’s graphic novel came out before the 2013 book that Patrick Ness wrote, which was adapted into that dark fantasy directed by J.A. Bayona, or how it’s simply coincidental that both tackle similar themes. I liked both movies, they’re touching in their own way, but “I Kill Giants” puts the main character a bit more front-and-center and is a little easier to watch than the depressingly sad “A Monster Calls”.

That being said, sadness and uncertainty is something we inevitably have to face in our lives. If we don’t, it’s still there. There’s no ignoring it. This movie struck me on a personal level, in the same way it will anyone who has grieved the loss of a loved one to a terminal illness or is currently watching helplessly as someone close is fighting/suffering through an illness. The more we live, the more we expect it, I suppose. But this story reminds us that, for a child, such circumstances can be crippling and overwhelming. It definitely found me recalling the uncertain and scary feelings I experienced as a child when faced with illness and death for the first time.

The amount of theatrical screens “I Kill Giants” will see is sadly limited, but that’s the nature of the current distribution system (it’s showing in one theater in the Chicago suburbs). Thankfully, it can also be found on VOD and digital platforms as well. However it finds an audience, I’ll be glad. The title or the trailer shouldn’t prevent viewers from checking out this sincere and uniquely told story that anyone can relate to.

 

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RATING: ***

 

(you can hear me have a spoiler-filled discussion about “I Kill Giants” with fellow film critic, Ian Simmons, on his Kicking the Seat podcast, here)

 

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