“A MONSTER CALLS”
Normally, I save my signature life lessons for the end of each movie review, but for “A Monster Calls,” a tremendously serious and heartfelt film, I have to lead with one.
LESSON #1: PAINFUL TRUTHS BALANCING COMFORTING LIES-- This lesson speaks to a polarity of conscience. Sometimes, we need to hear things or tell ourselves things that soothe our hearts and minds. Those words may not always be truthful, and we might even know they’re not, but they help. In other moments, only the truth will do, even if it hurts. Bravery of a personal sort is needed.
J.A. Bayona’s film, based on the 2011 novel of the same name and adapted for the screen by the author himself, Patrick Hess, operates with a similar dichotomy and balancing act with its genre. “Fantasy” and “genuine” are two words that do not normally mix together. “A Monster Calls” creates an engrossing tale of allegory and myth and still roots it in a setting of stark reality filled with family and flaws.
“Pan” newcomer Lewis MacDougall plays Conor O’Malley, a bullied, friendless, and introverted teen who is virtually invisible at school. Conor comes home to an estranged family, the result of two people marrying and having a child too young. His father (Toby Kebbell) lives in America, leaving Conor with his mother, a former artist named Lizzie (Felicity Jones), that he adores. She is Conor’s rock and artistic inspiration, but Lizzie is a crumbling one that is terminally-ill with cancer. Her deteriorating health leads to good and bad days that thrust Conor into an unprepared role as a caregiver. As options dwindle, Lizzie’s mother and Conor’s strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) steps in to prepare for the worst. During these difficult months, Conor has been experiencing recurring nightmares of screaming, darkness, and wind.
One night at 12:07am, Conor drifts to sleep only to be visited in his dreams by a hulking yew tree that has morphed into a more humanoid form (voiced and performed by Liam Neeson) from an old cemetery parish across the street. Stoked by internal fires and carrying a booming voice, the Monster has come to tell an unfrightened Conor three true stories of the past in three visits. The Monster decrees that Conor must tell him a fourth story, his own story and the truth behind his own nightmares, before the end of their time together.
Cinematographer Oscar Faura (“The Imitation Game”) and extraordinary visual effects from Glassworks Barcelona brings Conor’s art and the Monster’s chapters to life in flourishingly animated visions within the live-action film. Each story of “wild havoc” is a little deeper, a little darker, and a little different in style each time create a permeating and vibrant dreamscape. Coupled with Neeson’s grizzled line delivery as a narrator, these chapters resonate with increasing power for Conor (and us).
Ness’s novel feels like it was born for the silver screen and it couldn’t have found a better steward in Spanish director J.A. Bayona, not even one named “Spielberg.” Combined with 2012’s moving tsunami drama “The Impossible,” Bayona demonstrates a keen directorial manner for child actors and stories involving mothers and children. Lewis MacDougall performs with raw bravery and zero pretension, capping a banner year of youth performances after Sunny Pawar in “Lion” and Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea.”
The deeper into fantasy “A Monster Calls” delves, the greater the human factor rises to match it and, ultimately, surpass it. Nestled in wonderment while punching with honesty, the source novel and the film have volumes to say on grief, healing, and coping. The effect cinematically is poignant and moving beyond measure. It earns every unflinching ounce of its emotional draw as one of the most profoundly emotional films of the decade. As a PG-13 film confronting nightmares and painful loss, “A Monster Calls” is not a film for the faint of heart in the family film marketplace, but it succeeds beautifully to evolve into the kind of soothing and cathartic good cry that we all need from time to time. Let me tell you, it’s worth every blubbered tissue.
LESSON #2: THE BRAVERY TO COPE-- Any hopeful audience roots for “happily ever after,” and rightfully so. Life, and even fantasy, reminds us that happiness is not always feasible. The movie itself says it perfectly by stating “most of us get messily ever after and that’s alright.” To believe and reach that point of “alright,” it takes the courage to cope, to heal, to let go, and come to terms with your personal pain after a tragedy.
LESSON #3: HAVING AN OUTLET OF EXPRESSION-- In this film, an outlet becomes more important than having a hobby to flex the creative muscle for the sake of having a hobby. Conor’s gifted ability with art, a trait and interest passed to him by Lizzie, is his emotional outlet to cope with nightmares, bullying, loneliness, his mother’s pain, and, whether he admits it or not, his own as well.
LESSON #4: CHILDREN ARE DOOMED TO SURVIVE THEIR PARENTS-- Buoyant fantasy and all, there is no good way to sugarcoat the truth of this film and this inevitable lesson. To survive one’s parents, means there will come a point that you will watch them die. You will look into their eyes and hold their hand until the end. Even if you know it’s coming, there is little preparation for such loss. Hope that it happens later in life than at Conor’s age.