Often times the harshest reality of growing up is the realization that we are, by nature, flawed human beings. The dawning understanding that our parents are not infallible superhumans, that we are not impervious to harm is something that can be associated with the loss of innocence; the moment you realize that the world surrounding us is a much uglier, crueller one than what our story books and guardians may have led us to believe. What becomes even more important when you mature through that is the realization that while life is dressed in its rough edges, that the moments of clarity, truth and understanding that make up human complexity is something beautiful to be behold. It’s the notion of that human complexity that shapes director J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, an adaptation of the Patrick Ness novel (which he adapted for screen). It’s a world where life lessons include the idea that beloved princes can commit evil deeds, a witch can be worthy of a second chance while a man and his faith can be forever damned. It’s a world where a 12-year-old boy will not be condemned for wanting to be seen, wanting to be heard, and dealing with his mother’s crippling illness and the grief that follows in a manner which isn’t always beneficiary to his well-being. That is where the monster comes in.
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a 12-year-old boy who is routinely bullied at school for being quiet and isolated. His mother (Felicity Jones) is on the last legs of multiple experimental treatments. His father (Toby Kebbell) is mostly absent while his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is cold. With his mother spending an increasing amount of time in the hospital, he’s left to deal with his conflicting emotions alone and, in a fit of despair, calls upon a monster (Liam Neeson) of a fable. A tree shaped, enormous figure at times a thing of nightmares, at others an over-sized Groot, he’s arrived to help Conor through his moment of trauma, promising him three stories before Conor must tell the monster his truth. Broken into segments where we, like Conor, wait until the clock strikes 12:07, each story offers the audience something whimsical and something that cuts deep. Don’t mistake this for a children’s movie, as its themes of grief run greatly in a similar vein of this year’s Kubo and the Two Strings, meaning that sometimes in life hard things happen, moments that define and weigh heavily on us for years to come, but we must learn to process and carry the memories and grief with us, rather than be dragged down with those we lost.
There are consequences in Ness’s world when people are selfish and cruel, and those who act out of the goodness of their hearts aren’t always rewarded due to it. Such are the lessons Conor learns, a world often very unfair to him. Ness’s script and the visuals paint a stark contrast of fairytale and dark realism. The contrast is key in particular when moments in the real world are juxtaposed to the images from the stories the monster tells. In the former, the world is bleary, the skies always gray with a hint of rain dripping from the clouds, and the interior of his grandmother’s house is sterile and distant. Meanwhile, the stories come alive with watercolor that splashes across the screening, using animation in a manner which truly places the viewer in what might as well be another separate film.
The film stumbles in the third act primarily because where the script could have shaved a minute or two (or in the case of the ending, a scene or two), they instead drag on for a line or two too long. Crispness would have been the greatest benefactor for a film, which is already so lush in its atmosphere and cinematography. Redundancy was a real threat to the movie as it pressed on but was luckily anchored by performances that allowed us to never feel like we were wasting our time. MacDougall, in particular, is superb, both nailing the withering feeling of defeat when we comes to realize there’s nothing to be done for a loved one, or his eruptive anger at a school bully. The camera spends a large portion of the time with its lens close up on MacDougall’s face as Conor runs through a gamut of emotions. Jones is as impressive in a role that easily could have resulted in a simpering place holder position, where instead she gives her character a steely, unshakable resolve, even when faced with extraordinary discomfort.
Deeply emotive and heart-achingly sad, A Monster Calls is a tremendous triumph. From its technicalities to those we watch on screen, both spill forth with emotion and deep connectivity to their audience. Neeson’s rumbling voice takes us on a ride through a world where tragedies exist and they’re not easy to overcome, but if we’re lucky, there might be a monster who lives under the tree in our backyard that may come to our aid, when we least realized we needed it.
This review is a reprint from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.