Having never read Joe Kelly’s excellent graphic novel, I expected an earnest giant-killing fantasy film out of Anders Walter’s directorial feature I Kill Giants. What I got instead was a film that, albeit one that still contained elements of fantasy, was more a direct coming-of-age story about a young girl being the David to the various Goliaths in her life, the pains of adolescence complicated by trauma and a struggling home life.
Whether or not you’ve read Kelly’s acclaimed 2008 graphic novel (illustrated with brilliant depth by Ken Niimura), I Kill Giants is a strong, solid narrative that holds weight in both comic and film mediums. It is also the type of story that utilizes the strengths of both by allowing fantasy and reality to engage with each other. Kelly also wrote the screenplay, so his story’s transference from comic to film never feels like the source material gets compromised to meet a reasonable running time.
I Kill Giants centers on a young teenage girl named Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe, in an epically stunning performance). Instead of being focused on lip gloss and television shows, Barbara’s main priority in life is to protect her Long Island town from giants threatening doom to its inhabitants. She talks with the affected manner of a war veteran and has little time to think about anything else around her, including her older sister Karen’s (a sympathetic Imogen Poots) efforts to implement stability in the household; Taylor, the older, teen bully who’s out to make her life a living hell; or her school counselor, Mrs. Mollé’s (Zoe Saldana) efforts to befriend her. Barbara holes herself up in a makeshift study in an abandoned beach shack, sets up traps and bait around the woods and in her school, and waits for her supposed giants to wage an attack.
While resentful that no one else seems to appreciate or notice her valiant sacrifices, Barbara stays committed to her supposed-giant-killing purpose. Then, she meets the new girl in town, Sophia (Sydney Wade). At first curious, Sophia later becomes concerned that Barbara’s obsession over killing evil giants is a shield to fight back against something more serious. Once she starts putting the pieces together and finds the source of Barbara’s parental absence—her mother is battling a terminal illness—she and Mrs. Mollé enlist Karen in trying to break through to Barbara and bring her back to reality.
A film that takes from a visual medium such as a graphic novel is of course going to be visually magnetic, and I Kill Giants does not disappoint in that department. While it’s a far cry from Niimura’s original comic design using contrasting bold colors and dramatic angles, the film offers a more genre-specific atmosphere with gloomy East Coast lighting and a more toned-down color scheme that allows primary colors to pop even more. The giants in the film are closer to those of Niimura’s design, and their CGI build looks spectacular. Walter and production designer Susie Cullen have crafted a marvelous, yet ominous world that fully encapsulates the treacherous domain Barbara inhabits.
Wolfe, who at 15 has already amassed a lengthy acting rsum, is a strong, wonderful actress, capable of conveying multiple shades of anger, vulnerability, determination and fear in her youthful countenance. That she can spit (literally and figuratively) smart-ass, quick-fire jabs at her elders and superiors shocked me a little, especially when directed toward those just trying to help. But that’s kind of the inherent weakness that Kelly points out about teenagers; even when they’re wise beyond their years like Barbara, there’s still so much they don’t know—but they’ll lash out anyway.
Kelly’s original tome expands the genre of supernatural, young women’s coming-of-age stories that includes Matilda, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Spirited Away and even the recently released Ava DuVernay feature A Wrinkle In Time. In fact, Kelly’s Barbara conjured up memories of one of my favorite female protagonists, Harriet Welsch from Harriet the Spy.
Regardless of gender, I Kill Giants channels a teen’s perspective of the world despite her own questionable grasp of reality, and it works amazingly well. So even if you’re an older adult, you’ll connect to this film. After all, you’re never too old to be reminded that no matter how big the giants in your life are, you don’t ever need to face them alone.
I Kill Giants was directed by Anders Walter; written by Joe Kelly; and stars Madison Wolfe, Zoe Saldana, Imogen Poots and Sydney Wade. The film will be released in select theaters and on VOD March 23.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers the Orange County DIY music scene, film, arts, Latino culture and currently pens the long-running column Trendzilla. Born, raised, and based in Santa Ana, she loves bad movies, punk shows, raising her plants, eating tacos, Selena, and puns.