The great shame in having late December limited releases is that they usually don’t make their way into wide release until early January. The greater tragedy, is that films like A Monster Calls don’t make it on to my top of the year lists. This film would have most certainly found a spot on that list. This is the type of film that can feel cheap because we have seen it so many times. A child’s mom is dying of cancer and he must overcome it. Yet, A Monster Calls is so much more than just typical genre tropes. It is a beautiful and stunning portrait of grief mixed with some brilliantly done CGI.
On the surface, A Monster Calls is about a young boy named Conor (newcomer Lewis MacDougall) who is a loner. He is bullied, sadistically at times, and his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. Below all of that plot, the film is structured as a way of overcoming grief, and ultimately coping with his mothers death. But this is no normal way of coping with pain. Young Conor has created a monster, literally, and this monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) is there for Conor’s journey.
MacDougall is amazing in this film. He elicits the emotions and child would go through losing a parent. His father (Toby Kebbell) is already estranged and living in America leaving him with his often times overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). Conor summons the monster unknowingly. The monster informs Conor he will tell him three stories and he will tell the monster his recurring nightmare. These stories are told beautifully and woven in to create such an emotional impact. The stories are in a sense a metaphor for the stages of grief and mourning Conor is going through. This is a tear jerker, and as I get older I find myself more affected by these types of films.
Most of the credit for the emotional heft in this film, is due to the acting. Director J.A. Bayona pulls incredible performances out of his cast and every character is three dimensional. The real is star is of course the aforementioned Lewis MacDougall as Conor. MacDougall embodies the character and creates such an aura around him that we are glued to the screen watching his performance. Conor is a very pained child and the character truly comes full circle. As a newcomer to acting, MacDougall has to carry the film on his shoulders. Without a convincing central turn, this film doesn’t work, and MacDougall is capable of reaching deep emotions and never over acts.
The true triumph of A Monster Calls, is that this film never feels cheap. That is to say it never feels like it is trying to manipulate you to feel something. With an obvious talent for visual flare, Bayona also has a knack for telling this story in an honest and authentic way. We see too often coming-of-age type films with a dying parent be played out in a way that we feel manipulated by the string pulling. Speaking of visual flare, this film is gorgeous to look at. The sound design is also nothing short of astounding. Though I haven’t seen Bayona’s previous work, from watching clips and trailers it is obvious he loves to play up the look of his films.
A Monster Calls covers dark topics. This is a kids movie to certain extent and one that be an important film for them to see. However, the film is able to balance its heavily somber themes with captivating drama. A Monster Calls may not find its way to many awards shows or take home gold statues, but it is a film certainly worth a watch. It is one of the best films from 2016 and one that will go down as a haunting exploration of human emotion. Bayona has crafted a layered and meaningful work that will not be soon forgotten in a crowded coming-of-age field.