In a small coastal American town, the middle-schooler Barbara has a secret: she must save the lives of everyone around her from murderous giants. Virtually nobody believes that giants exist, of course, but that’s simply because nobody bothers to look at the evidence. Barbara may be bullied at school, she may have a tense home life, and she may live in isolation, but she knows that she is the only person standing between the town and certain death.
She knows. She knows with an absolute certainty that distracts her from another problem, a more personal one that she refuses to acknowledge.
I Kill Giants struggles with itself. Its major strength is undoubtedly its depiction of Barbara herself, who is by far the film’s most developed character. She’s rude, she’s sarcastic, and even though she thinks she’s saving the town, she regards most of the people around her as not worth her time. It’s clear why she acts like this, but the film rightly never uses the reasons as an excuse for her actions. However, she never loses the audience’s sympathy, because it’s difficult not to emphasise with her problems. ‘Good’ is not necessarily ‘nice’, but ‘good’ is often enough to retain a viewer’s goodwill. Madison Wolfe plays the young girl very well, in a film which to a large extent rests on her shoulders.
Whilst most of the film’s attention goes to Barbara, it does not completely shut out the other characters. The most prominent is Sophie, a girl who has recently moved from England to America with her family. She persists in trying to make friends with Barbara and eventually does so, but she clearly doesn’t know how to react to Barbara’s insistence on giant-killing. She’ll go along with make-believe, but she knows very well that giants don’t exist and that roadkill is just roadkill, not the remains of a giant’s lunch. Her loyalties swing back and forth, partly reflecting how Barbara treats her and how far Barbara goes with her fantasies. Barbara nay not enjoy isolation, but she is also rather good at driving people away, and Sophie cannot keep up with her. More than that, she shouldn’t have to.
The problems with the film are individually small, but have a cumulative effect that can’t be ignored. In order to place dramatic weight in the appropriate scenes, the screenwriter Joe Kelly and the director Anders Walter engineer the plot as necessary, but this simply exposes the plot’s machinery. The biggest difficulty concerns the problem that Barbara is trying to run away from. The audience can guess in general terms what the problem is very early on, but nobody explicitly raises it until very late in the film. This is implausible; it’s a problem so large that everyone should be constantly talking about it. Barbara and her siblings should be referring to it every five minutes, and Barbara’s school counsellor, Mrs Mollé, would certainly bring it up in their frequent meetings. When the problem is finally made explicit, it lacks the proper weight because the audience has already guessed it so long beforehand. And if the audience were meant to have guessed it, then it is unclear why Kelly and Walter insisted on the secrecy.
A similar puzzle concerns how we’re meant to read Barbara’s obsession with giants. It’s one thing to indulge in make-believe, but it’s something else entirely to confuse fiction with reality. Does Barbara honestly believe everything she says about giants? It is heavily implied that she does, meaning that this is not just a retreat into fantasy when reality becomes too difficult. Barbara focuses on her obsession all day every day, and has frequent visual and auditory hallucinations. One wonders, then, why a child in such a dangerously precarious mental state gets no more help than that from the school counsellor. It does not take that long for Mrs Mollé to find out about the giants, not least because of the illustrations that Barbara draws during their sessions. Even when Barbara goes missing towards the end of the film, nobody suggests involving, say, the police to search for her.
If the viewer is noticing all this, it shows that the film isn’t doing enough to distract attention from it. I suspect that the film’s success is going to depend on the individual viewer – how caught up do you become in the film’s emotional force? If you believe that the film’s themes succeed, do the plot mechanics matter so much? For me, they matter enough to prevent I Kill Giants from being an unqualified success.