This shares several elements – including a crucial circumstance not revealed here until the third act – with A Monster Calls, but feels like a complementary effort rather than a simple tagalong … not least because it tells its story from the viewpoint of a girl who has her own reasons for interpreting her own life as a fantasy quest scenario in which she is the sole protector of a coastal community plagued by giants the mundane world tends to see as big waves or hurricanes or other catastrophes. Set in America but shot in Belgium and Ireland, it’s the feature debut of Danish director Anders Walter, scripted by Joe Kelly from a graphic novel he created with artist J.M. Ken Niimura (which came out in 2008, three years before the novel A Monster Calls).
Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe) sports a pair of rabbit ears ‘in honour of my spirit animal’ and carries around a bone axe named Coveleski (after a baseball pitcher who was nicknamed ‘Giant-Killer’ after a showing against the New York Giants in 1908) which she believes has supernatural properties – and has set all manner of traps and wards, carved mystic sigils and performs rituals, all designed to be effective against giants, whom she doesn’t merely want to frighten off but intends to lure in and destroy. Her home life is sketched in – she and a perpetually angry brother are cared for by an overstretched older sister Karen (Imogen Poots), and areas of their beachfront home are off-limits – and she’s understandably given a hard time at school. Sophia (Sydney Wade, whom UK TV fantasy fans will recognise from Beyond Bedlam and Wolfblood), a new arrival from England, tries to befriend Barbara, who at least tries to explain what she’s doing to the girl, but the local mean girl (Rory Jackson) seems prompted to a sustained malicious campaign against her. One teen movie convention followed is that the kindly, sympathetic school pscyhiatrist (Zoe Saldana) only has sessions with Barbara – whatever makes the bully a bully apparently isn’t in her remit, though we see she’s well aware of what Taylor is doing.
Wolfe – who has credits playing the younger versions of leads (Joy) and a genre standing thanks to Devil’s Due, True Detective, The Conjuring 2 and Cold Moon – is an interestingly obsessive protagonist. Like Sophia, we want to like her more than she lets us – and a few moments fit in around her overwhelming personality show the cost of living on the fringes of her obsession as she overhears her sister breaking down in tears as she nears the end of her rope or realises she’s gone too far by lashing out physically at people who are trying to be kind to her. Obsessive kids are always fascinating protagonists, and some of Barbara’s odd behaviour evokes everything from Curse of the Cat People through The Wasp Factory to Pan’s Labyrinth as she constructs devices only she understands or counts off magical milestones she has placed throughout her environment. It’s suggested that an early interest in Dungeons and Dragons – as opposed to the noisier shoot ‘em up computer games her brother plays – has sketched the fantasies she has filled in herself, but Kelly comes up with some genuinely poetic-strange speeches about the varying kinds of giants and their differing modes of evil … which are illustrated in brief, stark animated sequences. When the giants appear onscreen, we don’t get as close to them as to the monster in A Monster Calls – because they represent something different to the protagonist, though they are an interesting, unsettling and in the last act affecting presence.
It has very brief performances from Jennifer Ehle – in a key role – and Noel Clarke – in a nothing part. I imagine the pitch went ‘Noel, you’d have about three lines in one scene and don’t even get a close-up … at this stage in your career, after you’ve written, directed and starred in your own movies, you can afford to pass … but you’d be playing Zoe Saldana’s love interest … so, Equity minimum and luncheon vouchers all right with you then?’