Filmmakers and storytellers have been attempting for years to depict mental health on the big screen properly. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a list of the best movies about mental health. Included on that list are some of my favorites like Silver Linings Playbook, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story, and Inside Out. Hidden in the Hulu platform’s movie library is an underrated and unappreciated film that depicts mental health psychosis honestly, 2017’s I Kill Giants.
Director Anders Walter, along with writers Joe Kelly and J.M Ken Niimura, does a fantastic job weaving a fine line between the adult themes through a pre-teen lens. The film’s special-effects team proves you don’t need over the top special-effects to build tension, add conflict, suspense, danger, all with enchantment and childlike wonder. They thrust us into a world where Barbara (Madison Wolfe), the quirky, bunny-ear-wearing, intelligent protagonist, lives a normal life with a side job setting intricate traps and bait for “Giants.” The real world is portrayed as everyone being oblivious to cohabitating with tall, dark, and looming creatures hidden in the woods and behind many natural disasters. Barbara is the one person who sees, hunts, finds, and eventually kills these giants.
Barbara’s life consists of living at home in a parentless family headed by the eldest sister, and like a kid, she goes to school with a somewhat normal life. Still, we soon find she’s a loner on a mission to protect everyone from creatures no one knows are there. With a fantasy element in the story and the theatrical suspension of disbelief, the movie gives this story a fantasy feeling akin to Chronicles of Narnia or Bridge to Terabithia. In the beginning, they lead us to believe these giants are real and that twelve-year-old Barabara is possibly a chosen one who can see and defend us from them. There are suspenseful moments that mimic a horror feel as she confronts some of these giants.
The filmmakers add a new friend, Sophia (Sydney Wade), into the mix, and interestingly she reflects the movie viewer’s perspective of this world. Barbara shares moments that develop a bond with Sophia and divulges the giants’ story and lore and her mission to protect the world around them from this ongoing threat. Like the movie viewer, Sophia is thrown into this fantastic world but has a sense of skepticism throughout and tries to fully explore Barbara’s life to interpret her new friend and the giant obsession.
Soon the movie peels back the onion layers of reality that show the truth about Barbara and the giants. The filmmakers do a great job playing with our thoughts and perspective of the characters. I began the movie believing in these giants and then saw Barbara as just a kid with imagination and that the giants were not real. As the story dives deeper in the onion, we find there’s more to Barbara’s story than just fanciful imagination. They unfold bits of Barbara’s personal life, at times through Sophia’s eyes. Dealing with a series of personal hardships that have caused her to lose touch with reality and that she’s been escaping to a fantasy where she believes it’s possible to stop death itself by defeating “giants” in her town.
Soon viewers get the sense there are deeply emotional and mental health problems at the root of Barbara’s journey. For example, we witness the struggle Barbara has navigating the stages of grief. While we see her in denial, angry, depressed, and finally accepting. Most of the film is her bargaining. By the movie’s end, the motivation is unveiled that sets Barbara on this mission with the giants; it is all a ploy to become good enough, strong enough, and worthy enough to not only defeat the giants but somehow save her dying mother’s life.
There are clever hidden meanings and reveal a great story twist and how children and mental health patients see, deal, and interpret the world. One scene has Barbara hearing her name being called in a ghastly demonic voice, and she is afraid to go upstairs because a plantlike giant “haunts” her in the upper areas of the home. We find that the upstairs “monster” calling her name was not only Barbara’s sick mother but also a visual projection of such intense fear of seeing her mother ill that she couldn’t stand to be on the same floor as her mother and avoids all contact. After being attacked by her bully, Taylor (Rory Jackson), Sophia takes Barbara to her bedroom upstairs, where she learns about Barbara’s sick mother and begins to understand Barbara’s fantasies. We don’t see the mother yet or hear anything. Sophia runs out of the house, and the director teases our sense of skepticism as if there was a monster upstairs the whole time. By movie end and even upon a second viewing of the movie, it’s easy to see the beautifully woven elements for a compelling yet tense story of reveals and hard truths that we all deal with in our day-to-day lives.
When Barbara teaches Sophia about the lore of giants and harbingers, we learn that Giants came from a single giant that tore itself apart to create the others. Harbingers are apparitions that remain close to the giants in proximity and are another element of the writer’s hidden reveals. Towards the beginning of the film, we see the harbingers as real creatures, but the astute viewer gets the real sense of these ghastly naysayers after a while. They always show up when she is feeling distressed or is triggered, and in her interactions with them, all they ever do is tell her she’s a child, can’t do anything, or that she is just plain weak. Even though it’s not explicitly said in the film, you eventually get the sense that the harbingers are Barbara’s self-deprecating thoughts. After failing to defeat the “forest giant,” harbingers overwhelm her and tell her she is just lost, confused, friendless, and needs to prove herself. This is her spiral of negative thoughts that all of us can relate to, especially those with mental health issues.
The giants’ patterns reveal their truths as they appear during moments of distress for Barbara. After feeling betrayed by Sophia, she goes out and hunts down the forest giant. Multiple people bring up her triggers; her mother, baseball, and home life cause her to disassociate, hitting Sophia and the school psychologist, Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana). Giant sightings or interactions follow all these events. A scene of payback on her bully is described, in secret by Barbara, as “defeating this giant.” Her fear of her mother’s illness is a big issue that causes a so-called “Titan” to come out of the ocean during a storm. According to Barbara’s lore, Titans are a more menacingly destructive force than Giants. At this point in the story, they seem to represent an escalated state of her personal feelings and, essentially, her mental health. After defeating the Titan, she realizes that she can’t save her mother. Titan tells Barbara she is stronger than she thinks. Most with mental illness cannot hear those words. With poetic license, viewers see the last brush strokes show that the Titan’s voice, like the harbingers, is Barbara’s inner thoughts and voice. This movie illustrates that our giants are the different struggles we deal with, but we are all stronger than we think and leave viewers with a feeling of acceptance and overcoming those struggles.
Anyone who has seen a street artist at work has a quiet beginning where no one is sure what they’re creating. Sometimes they use unusual colors, techniques, or brush strokes to look like abstract art of meaningless objects. Then, towards the end of their creation, people see bits of the real picture, and then the artist flips the image, and it’s a beautiful scene or a realistic face of someone. I Kill Giants captures the feeling of watching a street artist work. The overall mix of a compelling story, suspenseful yet light horror elements, and twists could make M. Night Shyalaman gush create this abstract fantasy story. The story morphs into a story of an imaginative girl that flips the painting to unveil an honest heart to heart about children and adult mental health, negative feelings while encouraging us to overcome life’s challenges, especially when our emotional health is that challenge. That’s what makes this an unappreciated gem in the back of Hulu’s movie collection, and hopefully, you can get a little encouragement while enjoying an evening with this film.