[This is a re-post of my A Monster Calls review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The film expands nationwide on January 6th.]
Every screening of A Monster Calls should automatically include a free box of Kleenex when you walk in the door. You know those movies where an emotional moment sneaks up on you and you suddenly realize you need to dab your eyes while no one’s looking? Yeah, A Monster Calls isn’t that. This is the kind of movie where there’s absolutely no way you’re hiding this, so it’s best to just ride it out. This is a tearjerker of the highest order, which was maybe inevitable given that it tells the story of a young boy trying to overcome his grief for his dying mother. But the conjuring of tears alone does not equal quality filmmaking. Plenty of bad movies can illicit tears with just the right music cue. In this grief drama with a touch of fantasy (think Pan’s Labyrinth), director J.A. Bayona proves wholly adept at crafting a tale of genuine emotion that is packed with imagination and sincerity, offering up a strangely cathartic fairy tale of sorts that never lets the fantasy overwhelm the character drama.
Based on the novel of the same name by Patrick Ness, who proves to be a skilled screenwriter as well in adapting his own book here, A Monster Calls is set in present-day England and revolves around a 12-year-old boy named Conor O’Malley, played with a stunning maturity and authenticity by newcomer Lewis MacDougall. Conor’s mother (Felicity Jones) is undergoing the final stages of chemotherapy, and as it’s become clear that his mother’s condition is quickly worsening, Conor has trouble coming to terms with his grief. An artist with a knack for drawing fantastical creatures, Conor is visited one night by the giant tree from the neighboring graveyard, who stands up and takes form in violent fashion, approaching Conor’s window with purpose.
The Monster, voiced by a thunderous Liam Neeson in an inspired piece of casting, tells Conor that he will visit him at precisely 12:07 every night to tell him three stories. At the end of this run, The Monster asserts that Conor will finally tell him a fourth story, one that is Conor’s truth. Conor shoves off his appearance at first, but is soon enveloped in The Monster’s arms and told the first story, which plays out visually in dazzling animation that brings to mind the lovely Deathly Hallows sequence from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1.
While Conor continues this somewhat contentious relationship with The Monster, he’s also faced with his mother’s worsening condition, as his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) arrives to try and get the family’s affairs in order. Conor’s father, played by Toby Kebbell in a performance that will have you wanting to see more of this talented actor’s face in lieu of his extensive motion-capture work, also arrives for a spell, though his refusal to make Conor part of his new family in L.A. provides little comfort.
And thus Conor is, largely, alone, save for this Monster, who proceeds to guide the young boy on a journey towards coming to terms with his grief. In the wrong hands this could have turned into a sappy, uninspired piece of melodrama. But in the hands of Bayona, it’s downright thrilling. The filmmaker’s ability to balance the fantastical imagery with the deadly serious real-life drama is swell, as neither feels like it’s hindering the other. Moreover, Bayona—who will next helm the franchise tentpole Jurassic World 2—wisely decides never to telegraph to the audience whether The Monster is real or a dream; in the end, what matters is Conor’s experience, and how deeply we empathize with it.
Working alongside cinematographer Óscar Faura, Bayona captures daunting scale and conjures genuine emotions with precise and motivated camera placement, and in the quieter scenes between Conor and his mother, or Conor and his grandmother, Bayona lets his actors shine.
And shine they do. In a breakout turn, MacDougall performs with the conviction of someone well beyond his years, handling scenes that call for intense emotions with ease and earnestness. This movie doesn’t work without feeling for Conor, and MacDougall is the beating heart of this entire ensemble. Jones, too, is magnificent, saying so much with just her eyes. There’s a bravery to Jones’ performance that is incredibly difficult to pull off, balancing that line of wanting to be strong for her son but also experiencing such horrible pain and suffering. And Neeson is a vital piece of this puzzle, delivering a vocal performance that at once terrifies and comforts.