Film Review: I Kill Giants

Arrive well supplied with tissues for this one, an adaptation of the graphic novel about a young girl who anthropomorphizes her pain in order to do battle against it. 'I Kill Giants' is a dark piece of work for children, which is far from a bad thing.
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Barbara (Madison Wolfe, displaying a nice ear for comedic timing) is a strange girl living under difficult circumstances. Her harried older sister, Karen (Imogen Poots), is trying to hold down a job while contending with a difficult boss and caring for both Barbara and their brother. It’s evident Karen loves her sister and feels guilty about how little time she spends with her, but it’s just as plain Karen is holding on by the thinnest of threads. No matter: Barbara has a mighty quest to keep her occupied. You see, her town is being menaced by giants. Not the sort of giants whom Mickey Mouse bested, Barbara explains with characteristic, precocious contempt to the new school therapist (Zoe Saldana), who just wants to help her. These giants are true horrors: Among other vivid atrocities, some of them use human kidney as a garnish when they eat reindeer. It’s up to Barbara, with the help of a secret weapon she has named “Coveleski” for personal reasons that will become apparent and important, to stop them—that is, if she can be brave enough.

With a vocabulary well advanced for her years, a frank disdain for stupid people (“Most people are stupid”), and a penchant for wearing soiled bunny ears as a tribute to her spirit guide, Barbara is not the most popular of girls. She’s a frequent target of the school bully in blue eye shadow. When a new student named Sophie arrives from Leeds, England, and tries to make friends, Barbara is suspicious. But soon Sophie is tripping along at Barbara’s side as the latter fashions elaborate DIY traps for the giants in the woods. Tables begin to turn, however, once Sophie’s own suspicions, concerning the emotional soundness of her new, imaginative friend, are justifiably aroused.

Much like its protagonist, I Kill Giants moves to its own rhythm, one rather slow for a film targeted at a young audience. But that’s so much the better, because the first two-thirds of the film are terrific: atmospheric and tightly structured, revealing its information regarding Barbara’s life and family history crumb by insightful crumb. It takes its time, and as it does, we watch Barbara unravel with a patient and unflinching eye that can, at times, be daunting. Girls are beaten up and breakdowns are had with a real air of plaintiveness. Depression is movingly conveyed, through the concrete manner in which too-smart-for-her-own-good Barbara acts out in school, as well as via those stories Barbara concocts to cope with what is happening around her. She wants to be a warrior and talks with the sort of brash confidence of a hero going against the grain because she’s right and everyone else is deluded. But Barbara remains every tender inch a child, and it is in tenderness, so this nice movie suggests, that bravery of a different sort can be found.

In fact, the film is so smartly structured and affecting over its first half-and-change, it’s almost too bad when the climax occurs and its “moral” is stated so darn explicitly. I Kill Giants is, lest some of us forget, a children’s movie with a very clear point to make and an unequivocal message about loss to impart. It’s a good message that should be conveyed comprehensibly to the intended audience, but must all subtlety, and with it every symbol, be destroyed in the name of ensuring we get it? I don’t know. When, during the climax, Barbara speaks to a giant not as if he were a giant but, rather, as the anthropomorphized creature of her pain that he is, it sounds like the screenwriter speaking through her to the children in the audience. Even though Barbara’s walls are falling down at last, the level of psychological penetration she evinces here is so deep as to be nearly astounding. If the movie’s earlier depictions of her pathology had been less affectingly plausible, this might be less of a problem. But Barbara has already been established as a convincing character, so it is a shame that when it matters most she is not allowed to remain a character; she becomes a mouthpiece.

Tissues ought to be readily accessible for the end of the movie. Afterward, you might find you want to call your mom, or just sit for a moment. Such strength of feeling is a nice token with which to be left, at any age.

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