I Kill Giants feels secret and dangerous, like a VHS tape dug out of a dusty crate at a yard sale; it’s the kind of movie you ended up watching every week as a kid just because of how weird it made you feel. The debut feature of director Anders Walter is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Joe Kelly (who also adapted the screenplay), and it’s at once familiar and unsettling, with shades of Pan’s Labyrinth and Return to Oz. But what gives it its chills has less to do with its freaky creatures, and more with the troubled state of its young heroine. Young protagonists escaping into fantasy in the face of traumatic reality is a common theme in children’s fiction, but few films take their heroine’s mental state seriously enough to interrogate it the way I Kill Giants does.
Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) is a wild, moody tween living with her older sister and brother in a state of not-quite-controlled chaos on windswept Long Island. Their parents are absent, for reasons that will come to light over the course of the film. Barbara’s sworn duty is that of a giant slayer; she goes about her business setting traps and creating anti-monster potions to protect the town from a threat they remain blissfully unaware of. Never without a battered pair of rabbit ears (in tribute to her “spirit guide”) she’s a little rain cloud at home despite her sister Karen’s (Imogen Poots) attempts to bond with her, and she’s ostracized and friendless at school. A new girl (Sydney Wade) arrives and is drawn to her eccentricities, and a school counselor (Zoe Saldana) tries to break through to her, but Barbara’s zealousness proves very effective at keeping people out.
The film works largely because of Wolfe, a fierce and fearsome young actor who is able to capture Barbara’s hurt and anger while never coming off as beyond her years. There’s something extremely recognizable about this girl — just about too old to still be playing pretend, but so willing to dig into her outcast status — whether you were her growing up or remember her from school. The reality of Barbara’s “profession” is kept gently ambiguous for the first half of the film; we catch a glimpse of a gnarled giant hand in the film’s opening minutes, but the beasts stay elusive until Barbara’s emotions start to unravel in earnest. To the degree that the film has been promoted at all, it’s pushed Chris Columbus’s producing credit and attendant Harry Potter–adjacent “magic,” but it’s much more strategic and impressionistic about its use of effects — for budget reasons, I’m sure, but also because of the deeply subjective origins of its titular giants.
The reason behind Barbara’s fantasy life, when revealed, will work better for some than others. What’s undeniably impressive, however, is how the film never tries to assert that the way Barbara has handled her trauma is the way all kids would. The heroine of I Kill Giants is an extremely specific and complicated girl, and the film is very explicitly about her grief, not all grief. There’s more than enough material there, as it turns out.
With its bunny ears and underlying Phillies obsession and perfectly art-directed secret hideouts, I Kill Giants could have easily run the risk of becoming too precious for its own good. But it’s too dark and strange a film to ever be accused of being cute. There’s a radical energy running through it, partly due to the fact (which I realized very late into the film) that virtually all its speaking characters are women; all its conflicts and bonds are between girls and sisters and teachers and friends. Nothing is fixed by the film’s end, but a few things have been confronted and faced down. This is a film that is going to mean a lot to a certain kind of kid, whether they dig it out of a dusty yard-sale crate or out of an on-demand queue.