Growing up is a peculiar and sometimes frightening experience, laden with heavy choices and hard decisions and a lingering fear of what lies ahead. People cope with the stress of looming adulthood in a number of different ways. Some hurl themselves into the great unknown of adolescence; others grapple with the problems of reality in a different way. They attempt to quantify them, give them names and weaknesses so that they can be confronted, conquered and laid to rest without looking back and combating them at the source.
This is how Barbara Thorson operates. The youngest child of an acutely dysfunctional family, with a sister struggling to stay employed and keep a divided house in order and a brother who spends his time captivated by his PS4, she is a self-styled 'giant slayer'. Routinely venturing into the natural surroundings beyond her home, she styles herself as a hunter of beasts straight out of a fantasy novel as she roams about with her trusty 'war hammer', Covalesci, looking for the next apparent beast to slay. But elsewhere, she is considered peculiar; a frequent target of harassment at school, a troublesome pupil for teachers and a source of exasperation for her desperate older sister. When a British girl named Sophia (Sydney Wade) moves into the area and discovers Barbara fiddling with her assorted 'giant traps', the two spark off an odd kind of friendship. However, this is merely a prelude to the drama to come as Barbara sees more 'giants' looming on the horizon. Seeing them as a portent of an impending disaster, she becomes ever more determined to stop them, no matter what it takes.
I Kill Giants is already being set up to be a tragic victim of disingenuous marketing, because evidently, the suits believe that honesty will not sell tickets. For those without knowledge of the source material, it will seem like some suburban fantasy action romp from the trailers, when that could not be farther from the truth. It does have action in a sense, but this is a work that is firmly grounded in reality beyond the veneer of lumbering giants. The film is not a fantasy flick by any stretch of the imagination; rather, it is a character study. Barbara - with young Madison Wolfe giving the performance of her career, and I strongly hope this takes her to new heights - appears to be the walking embodiment of eccentricity on a surface level. She immerses herself in mythological knowledge, she has an unyielding fascination with all things fantastical, she has knowledge of obscure facets of baseball, she possesses a sharp wit and a way of speaking quite unlike those of her age group, and operates out of a self-made base filled with assorted equipment and bric-a-brac, wherein she devises her plans against the 'giants'. Her character seems all sorts of strange superficially, but as the film progresses the viewer comes to see Barbara for what she actually is, and what she so fiercely struggles against. The revelation of such is pleasingly gradual and organic; up until a certain point, we can only make assumptions mostly based off of Barbara's personal lexicon. 'Giants' are a catch-all term for the problems that she encounters, her parents are curiously absent and mention is made of how 'upstairs' is strangely forbidden. One can make educated guesses, but the film teases with only brief glimpses of thought-provoking and tantalizing details, a wind-up for a tried but true gut-punch.
Beneath the quirky and strangely charming veneer and the odd yet adorable rabbit-ears headband she so often wears, Barbara is the quintessential image of a troubled youth, who tries despite everything to stave off the trials that beset her and her family, and while this is endearing in a way, the film also pulls no punches in showing its downsides. Along with the aforementioned harassment at and outside of school - that shows no qualms about getting violent - she treats her lessons with forced acceptance at best and absolute disdain at worst, prioritizing her 'giant-hunting' activities above virtually everything else and being incredibly vague when people, including her own family, ask for explanations. This attitude also extends, at least initially, to her psychiatric evaluation sessions with Mrs. Molle (Zoe Saldana), the only member of the school's faculty to overtly display sympathy for her and who is willing to try and understand her; "Teachers aren't paid enough for that kind of abuse, she's a psychiatrist", Barbara says, in the aftermath of a particularly heated moment. The extent to which she is ostracised for her mannerisms is also made clear, with an abundance of curious glances being shot her way as she strides down hallways, disparaging murmurs being flung her way and with Barbara herself acknowledging that she is a 'freak' with limited social skills. Her interactions with Sophia, herself played solidly by Wade, serve to gradually bring her out of her shell, but are also ruthlessly exploited by bullying types, with additional misunderstandings, familial divides and bouts of raw emotional outbursts to boot. Suffice it to say the film makes doubly sure that Barbara, and most of the rest of the cast, are put through the wringer before the denouement.
It may seem frustrating, perhaps intentionally so, to see these people put through so much while yearning for the situation to improve, but is through the hardships that the film proves itself. I Kill Giants is a feature with a single driving message: that although reality is often harsh, cruel and unpredictable, we emerge all the stronger for managing to face it head-on. To the film's credit, however, it never once feels as though the script is belittling Barbara for acting the way she does. While other members of the cast throw criticism her way, the way she is depicted and the way her character writing translates from the source material to the screen allows us to sympathize with her fully, and never denigrates her for her habits. Although the overall message is one of acceptance and of facing one's demons, it casts no shame on what she does to cope with the troubles she faces, and that is what makes Barbara's character, and I Kill Giants as a whole, so outstanding. It's an accurate representation and an acknowledgment of the things some people do to endure the ever-shifting vicissitudes of life, and though the film is a firm believer in the idea of troubles shared being troubles halved, it is understanding of those who are locked in the struggle of early adolescence. Because of this, Barbara emerges as a truly exemplary character and a role model for youngsters who feels entirely natural and relatable. She becomes someone you want to see succeed, who you want to protect, to support and comfort in her moments of fragility and doubt, and that stands as a testament to the effectiveness of Kelly's original writing and the deftness he exhibits in carefully adapting his work for the screen, the overall faithfulness of the adaptation, and the strength of the film as a whole.
I Kill Giants is a simple tale, told earnestly, featuring solid performances all round, decent effects work, and a strong emotional core surrounded by characters who feel human, trying to do the best they can with the lot they are given. Being adapted from a rather niche source, it is perhaps not for everyone, but I implore you not to be dissuaded by dishonest advertising. Beyond the CGI giants, it is a tale of blossoming maturity, emotional closure and personal acceptance - a film that tells all those in Barbara's position, as she herself eventually espouses: "We're stronger than we think."