What does it take to bring the imagination of one child to life on the big screen? J.A. Bayona has the answer and offers it up in the utterly heartbreaking, completely devastating, totally brilliant “A Monster Calls.”
Written by Patrick Ness and based on his book (which in turn was inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd), “A Monster Calls” is the story of 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall), and his coming to grips with his mother’s illness. Played by Felicity Jones, Conor’s mom is suffering from cancer while Conor’s dad (Toby Kebbell), is off in America with his new wife and Conor’s half-sister. Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is around to help her grandson, but they don’t particularly see eye-to-eye.
As might be expected for a child in this situation, Conor suffers from nightmares. Conor believes that a yew tree in the graveyard he can see from his room is a monster and comes alive to tell him stories (the tree is voiced by Liam Neeson, as all monstrous trees should be). Conor doesn’t quite get that these stories are relevant to his world, but the audience does and as Conor’s mother grows ever more ill, he sinks further into this alternate relate where he talks with the monster.
The movie is one of those rare occurrences in filmmaking where the audience is not simply treated to a great tale, but rather treated to a great tale that told wonderfully. The movie switches to animation for the monster’s stories, and it is a nearly seamless transition – one moment Conor is there in his room, then he is being held by a massive tree, then a story is unfolding in the most perfect CGI rendition of watercolor paintings one could want. It is outstanding. Actually, it’s slightly better than the monster himself who, once or twice, doesn’t blend in with the “real” world quite as well as he ought.
Coming of age stories are nothing new in our world, and if one is looking to classify “A Monster Calls,” it certainly fits squarely into that genre, but somewhere down the line it may come to represent the genre. “A Monster Calls” is offered to audiences with such an incredible sense of life and the horrors of growing up and the love between parents, children, and grandparents that it emotionally lays waste to those watching in the same way that Conor and the monster lay waste to their world.
“A Monster Calls” is a movie that fires on all cylinders, doing nearly everything in perfect fashion. If one is to nitpick, I have some questions about whether Sigourney Weaver is attempting to do an accent in the film, but the honest truth is that the movie is so incredibly powerful and so beautifully rendered that even that falls by the wayside. After watching it, the first stop many will take is to the bookstore to pick up Ness’ work (or to their phone to get it digitally).
One of the things I’ve wrestled with following the film is its appropriateness for my daughter (age 10.5 currently). She loves movies and this is an incredible one featuring a child roughly her age at its center. She loves Tim Burton’s adaptation of “Miss Peregrine” and I think no small part of that is the movie’s young leads. I was not satisfied with that film however and want to show her a more impressive movie with a lead closer in age to her than a typical film. On the other hand, I wonder if it would terrify her.
Rated PG-13, “A Monster Calls” is not a movie for the faint of heart. It is not a movie for those easily scared by monsters nor is it a movie for those scared by loss. Felicity Jones’ portrayal (including hair, make-up, and wardrobe), is perfectly true and all the more heart-wrenching for it. My daughter wouldn’t know just how accurate that aspect is, but she would see in Conor someone her age who, with an admittedly a brilliant imagination as a coping mechanism, is still having trouble dealing with a life-changing loss.
For a slightly older crowd, however, “A Monster Calls” is a movie not to be missed. It is beautiful and heartbreaking and the reason we go to the theater.
photo credit: Focus Features