Escapism has forever been a key element of the fantasy film experience, and there exists a wide range between the turn-your-brain-off silly variety and those with a catharsis that rattles souls.  To this writer, the greatest fantasy stories and their film companions provide a substantial dose of the latter emotional catalyst. Among those very best, the level of imagination found in their created breaks from reality bring forth deeper engagement.  Most everything less is merely cute noise and distractions, which have their place but earn little resonance.

For the YA film demographic, I would trade the dozens of run-of-the-mill repetitive and mindless roller coaster rides for more stories and movies that engage and matter like I Kill Giants.  Following in the footsteps of the likes of Pete’s Dragon and A Monster Calls in recent years, we have a more adult fairy tale that is not shy about heavy themes and strong emotions and enlightens them with a level of imagination that is both fragile and brutal with its beauty.  It’s the kind of film, with its underlying sensitivity covered by a tough shell, that teen audiences need to absorb for their own good of maturation.

Filmed in Belgium doubling as a seemingly permanently-overcast coastal New Jersey American landscape, I Kill Giants follows a bullied and unconventional teen named Barbara Thorson, played by emerging teen actress Madison Wolfe.  Wearing nebbish glasses below her unkempt bangs and bunny-eared headband, Barbara is more than a bit of a misfit with blunt social graces.  She bears the burden of freak and nerd labels for her OCD geek routines and differing interests from her trendy peers, including a penchant for Dungeons and Dragons-like tabletop quests over mindless video games.  Hints are there that she is not the girl she used to be.

Raised at the moment by her outmatched and unprepared older sister Karen (Imogen Poots of Green Room) in their beachfront home, Barbara finds solitary refuge in her own little self-made forts, an abandoned train car across town, and overturned old boat close to home where she tinkers with scrounged antique finds and low-tech discoveries.  These “holy” places of “sanctuary” are her staging grounds for defending her community from, and here’s the kicker, the impending threat of monstrous giants that only she can see.

Watching Barbara set traps with “bait juice” experiments and catalog her markers all over school, we see this is all bigger than a daydream or creative endeavor for her.  Bullying from mean classmates like Taylor (newcomer Rory Jackson) outweighs a kind new friendship from newly-arriving English immigrant Sophia (Sydney Wade of TV’s Wolfblood) and only pushes Barbara’s disconnect further.  Karen cannot remedy these red flags of rebellious behavior no more than Barbara’s new watchful and worried school psychologist Ms. Molle, played by a top-lining Zoe Saldana.  Guided by wondrous music from composer Laurent Perez Del Mar (The Red Turtle) channeling the flavor of John Williams or Alan Silvestri, I Kill Giants swells to a truly beautiful thing beyond the bizarre.

Start your “Wow, who is this girl?” Google or Wikipedia searches right now for 16-year-old Madison Wolfe.  This lead performance, her first after supporting child roles in films like The Conjuring 2, Joy, TrumboOn the Road, and TV series like True Detective and Zoo, is a revelation.  Wolfe emotes and exhibits far more range than the angst and petulance normally assigned to pissy Millennial-types.  There is a courage in her boldness as Barbara, yet every pause behind those glasses masks the true hurt begging for relief.  Bookmark her growing resume because she’s a future star-in-the-making.

Wolfe completely sells the engrossing point of immersion in I Kill Giants where you question and wonder if all the things Barbara sees just might be real instead of imagined.  That cinematic teeter-totter between looming fairy tale or acute allegory is a credit to the committed storytelling of the director.  I Kill Giants is the feature-length debut of Oscar-winning Danish short film director Anders Walters.  His victorious short Helium featured the longing whimsical visions of a terminally ill child in a hospital.  Such experience and manner with children stood as a perfect primer for approaching this film based on a 2008 Image Comics limited series graphic novel.  You better add him to the same keep-an-eye-on list as Wolfe. 

I Kill Giants is a rare treat of proper respect for the source material.  In the different hands of a bigger studio (say the Mouse House and Madeleine L’Engle, for example), heady stuff like this would be softened and watered down for cheap thrills and syrupy coatings.  Instead, Joe Kelly, the graphic novel writer who conceived this tale with artist J.M. Ken Niimura, was commissioned to adapt his work from the comic page to the silver screen (itself a background story worth reading in two places).  Not an ounce is dumbed down.  Backed by Harry Potter producer Chris Columbus, such creative dedication is beyond commendable, molding an impenetrable core of both credibility and honesty to tell a hard story straight, knowing the right audience will embrace I Kill Giants, even if that’s not everyone under the sun.  

I Kill Giants stands as one of the most unafraid and imaginative films of recent memory to portray the thorny truths of teen depression.  To merge such a difficult collection of issues with visual fantasy is what makes the source material and resulting movie special experiences.  The narrative escalates skillfully with risks and implications that hammer, literally and figuratively, the foreboding mystery of unseen pain, both physical and emotional, peaking with a perilous and heartbreaking denouement that makes it all worthwhile.

LESSON #1: THE DIE NEVER LIE-- Ask any tabletop game player and they’ll confirm this lesson.  They may even roll quick to confirm and make sure.

LESSON #2: BEING A WARRIOR VERSUS A COWARD-- Even if it comes out in acrimony and sarcasm, the level of fighting spirit in Barbara is really something.  Other teens in her situation would fold under stress and wallow in their depression. That’s not this girl. Her initiative, creativity, and resourcefulness only grow stronger when challenges are presented.  It may get her in trouble, but her toughness will serve her well.

LESSON #3: MENTAL OUTLETS FOR GRIEF AND HATE-- This brings us back to escapism.  It is essential to have mental exits from the distresses cause by emotional weights like anger and sorrow.  Bottling them up is a unhealthy and if it takes creating and warping perception to create those vents, so be it in moderation.  If you remove the delusional aspect of what Barbara is doing and combine that with Lesson #2, the character trait at this girl’s core is gumption because her shrewdness and resourcefulness have no bounds.  For more on this story's roots, check out this nice interview with Kelly on Yahoo.  

LESSON #4: FACING REALITY-- The actions and effects of Lesson #3 are temporary.  Outlets are only the release. Healing must follow and reality must be accepted.  As Kelly’s story laments all things die and people need to find joy in the living, come to not fear the end, and embrace life without denial.  Those are huge steps for all of us young and old. For a film like I Kill Giants to put these emotional takeaways together with fantasy is nothing short of extraordinary.