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2016 was a surprising year for movies, from massive blockbuster flops to unexpected comedy hits, but one film in particular gave us a few big hints about what we should expect. A Monster Calls, based on the wildly popular book by Patrick Ness, was set to be the tear-jerker of the year.

What nobody expected, however, was just how much it would make us cry.

Is there a secret to why the last thirty minutes broke the dam and sent an endless stream of saltwater and snot running down our faces? Is there a reason people filled entire popcorn bags with tissues? The truth is that A Monster Calls isn't just a sad movie. It has an unexpected trick up its sleeve. Yes, the plot is powerful and the actors give incredible performances ('s facial expressions are top-notch), but unless you paid close attention, you might not have realized that watercolor painting was the catalyst that created our tears.

Watercolor Painting In A Movie?

Yes, watercolors. A Monster Calls tells the story of twelve-year-old Conor, who's mother (played by ) has terminal cancer. Conor copes like any other boy of his age. He is visited by a Monster every night at 12:07am. The Monster tells him that there are three stories Conor must hear. The movie paints these tales in stunning watercolors.

[Credit: Focus Features]
[Credit: Focus Features]

Aside from the adrenaline rush of seeing a world of white turn into an elaborate landscape, seeing vibrant colors brushed across the screen in real time, and falling deeper into the stories with each word and splash of color, the painting has a different purpose. Watercolors require, well, water to create their signature look. Water is a wild card. When you dab paint onto water, the color explodes in any and all directions. A Monster Calls shows off as many dynamic aspects of this art form as it can, triggering all the dopamine receptors in your brain.

First and foremost, the watercolors are great eye candy. They make your brain chemicals jump around and buzz with excitement, but when they're tied to the rest of the movie, they transform into something completely new.

The Watercolor Plot Of A Monster Calls

Unlike a typical family movie, A Monster Calls is built in a way that allows a solid amount of downtime. Silence. Quiet moments when the actors aren't interrupted by a sweeping score or grandiose special effects overtaking every inch of the frame. Lewis MacDougall, who plays Conor, has a few great moments with Sigourney Weaver that rely on nothing but facial acting and the imagination of the audience. The quiet moments scattered throughout the movie make the big, effects-heavy scenes of A Monster Calls more intense.

[Credit: Focus Features]
[Credit: Focus Features]

Sound familiar? A Monster Calls takes the same concept found in watercolor painting—an unpredictable element—and uses it to create a plot that draws out the tension by letting us fill the silences with our own feelings. A Monster Calls isn't overproduced. It doesn't load up on too many shots or deafening sound effects. It balances everything just right so that when the bursts of color appear, they're blinding.

So what does down-time and painting have to do with our emotions?

[Credit: Focus Features]
[Credit: Focus Features]

Mixing and Matching The Movie

In a recent interview with Screen Rant, Director J. A. Bayona explained the role of watercolors in shaping the story.

The way A Monster Calls introduces art is the movie's most vital aspect. Like J. A. Bayona said, it's a way for the audience to interpret the story. It's the secret weapon. It's the reason we all became mass-producing tear factories in theaters all over the world.

This is how it works:

  • First, A Monster Calls brings in watercolor painting as a visual aid. The stories tells Conor come to life in a new, exciting way. Dopamine city, here we come.
  • The watercolor stories keep coming, and the movie makes a point of showing how paint and water mix, react to each other, and ebb and flow.
  • Meanwhile, the plot does the exact same thing. It ebbs and flows. It paints an empty element—like water, or like silence—across the screen, then adds color when the tension is at its highest.
  • The lines between the visuals and the plot begin to blur.
  • The lines disappear.
  • Now come the emotional explosions.
[Credit: Focus Features]
[Credit: Focus Features]

A Monster Calls draws a parallel between the art happening onscreen and the story building in your mind. Both parts of the movie play off each other so well that by the end, they're moving in sync. Be careful of those last thirty minutes. You think you're getting a rest with each quiet moment, but really the movie is only building strength.


Sometimes the unexpected things make the biggest difference. A Monster Calls has a story powerful enough to knock over a room of hardened journalists. It's got a cast that can act the tears right out of your eyes. But it also has art production that isn't just different from other movies—it becomes the movie. A Monster Calls is a colorful experience everyone might think they're ready to handle, but they're wrong. It's so much more.

Were you one of the people that filled up a popcorn bag of tissues while watching A Monster Calls?

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