Based solely on the trailers, audiences know that some stories are going to be hard to watch. It’s understood that you’re going to be twisted, even torn, but it’s rare that a film actually rips you apart before piecing you back together. So consider yourself warned: A Monster Calls will hurt you in ways you can’t expect and, yet, heal you just the same. Adapted from the Patrick Ness novel, director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) brings to life a fantastical tale of a young boy coming to terms with his mother’s terminal illness.
12-year old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) feeds himself, clothes himself, and makes sure he gets to school on time every morning. In between, he cares for his terminal ill mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), as she struggles to recover from the numerous treatments and medications. One night, while lost in his drawing, a Monster (Liam Neeson) arrives to confront Conor and guide him through a remarkable journey of bravery and truth.
A Monster Calls is an impressive allegory about the truth of loss wrapped in a supernatural, fantastical package. Loss is nasty, dirty, and often does more damage to those who mourn than to those who leave us. To sneak in a quote from the play Hamilton, “dying is easy. Living is harder.” Crafting an engaging story around this concept requires a deft touch and J. A. Bayona delivers with every scene. Using art as the visual through-line of the entire film, cleverly makes aspects of A Monster Calls more acceptable as the story becomes more outlandish. Utilizing water color in the opening credits, as well as the method that Conor envisions the Monster’s stories, work nicely to connect the significance of art within Conor’s life. Learning later how significant art is to Lizzie further binds the artistic representation of storytelling to the emotional journey Conor goes through due to its deep connection to his mother.
The artwork is just one aspect of how Bayona merges the fictional with the real. Through a mixture of practical and special effects, Bayona constructing a world that feels simultaneously tangible and wondrous. This is particularly important with the Monster, as it never appears on a different visual plane than Conor or any other real-world objects. This is an issue that consistently plagued The BFG (2016) and, to a lesser extent, Pete’s Dragon (2016), yanking audiences out of the respective films as they fail to maintain the illusion of reality. By seamlessly blending the computer generated Monster into the story, at no time is the audience drawn out from the narrative, which is key to the emotional success of the film.
Emotion is abundant in A Monster Calls and if you’re unaware of it, if you see this film without knowing, it will break you. In part due to the exquisite narrative adapted by the novel’s author, Patrick Ness, but largely due to the cast. In his second feature film, MacDougall does the majority of the heavy lifting. An arduous task for any actor, MacDougall carries the burden as an actor well beyond his years. Never does his performance seem unauthentic or whiney; rather, he delivers an emotional, and often physical, performance that requires great courage and presence. For her part as his mother Lizzie, Felicity Jones delivers unbelievably devastating performance of a woman struggling, and failing, to maintain a normal life as an unknown disease ravages her body. Surely, her name will be floated about during award season. Then there is the titular Monster, realized through a motion-capture and vocal performance from Neeson, an ancient being whose presence may be imaginary, yet whose actions possess real consequences for Conor. Neeson brings the appropriate gravitas to such a role, managing to convey conviction of reality and emotion through vocals alone that both grounds the character and suggests a deeper connection to the boy who called him. Appearing as additional support for Conor is his grandmother, portrayed with grace by Sigourney Weaver. Her accent takes some getting used to, but that aside, Weaver’s presence elevates every scene. Appearing first as the over-bearing, stern grandmother, we witness her façade crumble through performance alone, into a mother collapsing under the weight of her grief.
Great credit must be given to Nash for crafting a story which continues to provide insight into the characters even in the final moments. Though it requires the audience to pay close attention, along with making some intuitive leaps, throughout the runtime in order for it to pay off as designed, doing so realizes a conceived narrative more complete, more complex, and ultimately more fulfilling than audiences expect. Even as this reviewer left the theater feeling absolutely wrecked, a sense of awe, satisfaction, and a strong desire for connection coursed through me.
As in life, heartbreak and grief appear in many forms, which the four leads succeed in portraying all the way to the end. These performances are so impactful, that even knowing from the outset what’s to come, nothing you see, nothing you know will prepare you for the revelations within the Third Act. Pack tissues. However, like a meditative salve, A Monster Calls uses the creation of art and the power of imagination to reduce the ferocity of an emotionally-draining narrative. Grief, in all its forms, can be all-consuming; reducing an individual down to a shell of themselves. A Monster Calls displays a deeper understanding of this than audiences may expect, making it a hard watch for a PG-13 film. However, A Monster Calls also carries a message of hope, of continuance, through the art it utilizes to bind the narrative together. In this, audiences may be drained by the end, yet filled with inspiration and devotion.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.