It’s the job of films to make us feel things. Even better if it’s not things we can usually or easily feel. Like the thrill of running from dinosaurs, or blowing up space stations, or falling in love, or beating the terrorists. Or in the case of A Monster Calls, the pain that often goes with love.
The 12-year old Conor O’Malley (an amazing performance by Lewis MacDougall) is a “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” boy who has to deal with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) struggle against cancer. A bully at school, a strict, seemingly emotionless grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and monotonous schoolwork all add to his stress, anxiety, and insomnia. Until one night he is visited by a monsterous, Ent-like, talking Yew tree (voiced and motion-capture portrayal by Liam Neeson), who tells him parables that help him to get to the core of his emotional struggles.
Yes, we’ve seen a ton of fighting-against-cancer movies. And we’ve seen escaping-into-your-imagination movies. In 2003, Tim Burton’s Big Fish even gave us a combination of the two. But in so many instances, A Monster Calls directly avoids the expected clichés. There are several examples of scenes you’ve probably seen before, that A Monster Calls turns on its head and subverts your expectations, going for realistic portrayals of the emotional journey instead of settling for the cinematic expectation. We’ve also recently seen a big monster snatch a child from a second-story window in Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, but this film has none of Roald Dahl’s silly comedy, colourful fantasy, and black-and-white view of morals.
A Monster Calls honestly shows how sometimes you love somebody so much that you have to break things. Or that the thought of losing them makes you so angry that you can’t speak. Or that you can hate yourself for what love has done to your heart. Or that right and wrong don’t always align as clearly as we want it to, and that the fantasical, imagined guardian can simultaneously be a soothing and a scary presence. It’s tough stuff, but emotional truths. The movie feels like a small independent production about family, love, truth, and loss, but with a massive CGI & Animation budget to make The Monster and its stories as real, frightening, and amazing as possible.
The actor’s harsh portrayals are commendable, and the director’s treatment of the whole thing is exceptional. From set dressing, CGI, acting, and script, to music, sound design, and cinematography, the complete film is a polished package that reinforce its harsh emotional truths in every aspect. Ideas like the framing in the movie’s first classroom scene, where the teacher is an unseen, distant figure that speaks in a barely audible monotone, or the tense treatment of a rushed drive to hospital later in the film, all underscore the core premise: a relatable, loving kid dealing with questions that most adults haven’t figured out yet.
I’d highly recommend this movie to most people – especially those who love a moving cinematic experience. If A Monster Calls is anything to go by, director J. A. Bayona’s next film, the yet-to-be-titled Jurassic World sequel (I still hope it will be called The Lost Park: Jurassic World 2) might just be a blockbuster masterpiece.
A Monster Calls is in cinemas now.