I Kill Giants is easier to admire than enjoy. Think of the film as a pop culture confluence where Harry Potter meets A Monster Calls meets Zero Charisma meets Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, each of these a plot stream flowing through protagonist Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe). She’s a lonely girl slogging through high school without a friend at her side, locked in a constant struggle against her isolation, her bullies and her unending quest to protect her seaside New Jersey hometown from invading bugbears. I Kill Giants is big, gutsy and so well-grounded in its deeply personal, character-driven story that it steps beyond being simply a shameless homage.
That’s an impressive feat, but I Kill Giants needs to do more than calcify its references into a cohesive standalone narrative. That’s the heavy lifting the film doesn’t do. It’s well-intended, it’s heartfelt and in its small-scale fashion it’s surprisingly ambitious, but it’s also content to cheat its own premise and withhold its genre pleasures, which effectively undermines Barbara’s journey. We meet Barbara in the woods surrounding her sleepy burg as she checks traps and lays down bait for a giant she suspects is lurking among the trees. Apparently, a viscous cocktail of gummy bears, blood mushrooms, hair gel, and glitter are best for attracting giants to their doom. She records her findings in her colorful notebook, using an old overturned boat as her sanctuary against evil.
Barbara strikes us as confident, an academic monster slayer-in-training preparing to duke it out with darkness, but then she heads home and everything goes downhill from there. Her brother disrespects her, her older sister Karen (Imogen Poots) is too busy working to spend time with her, her mom is conspicuously absent from her life, her classmate Taylor (Rory Jackson) picks on her at every opportunity and the school’s new therapist, Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana), kindly but insistently tries to counsel her. Barbara being Barbara—self-reliant, cynical, whip-smart with a stiff upper lip—she’d prefer Taylor’s taunts and threats to Mrs. Mollé’s interventions any day of the week, because how could Mrs. Mollé possibly grasp the peril they’re all in with giants hanging around their borders?
The problem with I Kill Giants is the title. Generously, it’s a metaphor. Less generously, it’s a full-on lie. Going off of a script by Joe Kelly, co-author of the graphic novel the movie uses as its basis, Anders Walter flirts with two distinct possibilities: That Barbara’s right, and giants really are responsible for natural disasters and calamities all the world over, or that the real world has been subsumed by her fantasy world. For disclosure’s sake, the truth is slanted unambiguously in favor of the latter over the former, but Barbara’s firmly devoted to the fantasy, and at least on a surface level, the movie is too. How else to explain her near-miss encounters with her target, a lumbering behemoth she runs into first in the woods, and later on in a railyard where she throws down with her enemy and causes serious property damage in the process?
Unfortunately, there is a cut and dry explanation, and that explanation kicks I Kill Giants’s legs out from underneath it. If you want to make a movie about a kid battling the supernatural while balancing real world responsibilities, from school life to home life, make that movie. If you want to make a movie about a kid buckling under the pressures of those real world responsibilities as well as social alienation, make that movie. I Kill Giants tries to be both, but ultimately can only be one or the other. By consequence, the movie suffers an identity crisis that never gets reconciled, buoyed by dramatic tropes that would be insufferable in a straightforward effort that didn’t make us guess whether it’s honest to goodness genre fare or just a picture about troubled teenhood dressed up as genre fare.
Watching I Kill Giants teeter from one axis to the other is as frustrating as it is disappointing. Maybe this is just the way the graphic novel goes, and maybe Walter’s film can’t help following the blueprint laid out for it on the page. But adapting comics to screen presents an opportunity to tinker with the source material’s parts, and I Kill Giants could stand to be tinkered with: It’s two movies in one, and only one of them is worth considering as entertainment, and one as a comment on what it’s like growing up as a modern teenager with no one to share their existential uncertainty.
Director: Anders Walter
Writer: Joe Kelly
Starring: Madison Wolfe, Imogen Poots, Sydney Wade, Rory Jackson, Zoe Saldana
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist,WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.