Directed By: J.A. Bayona
Release Date: December 23, 2016
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver
It takes a lot to move me. I've seen countless films over the last three decades, and I've been subjected to so many projects that feel manipulative, their efforts to make audiences feel something too obvious to come off as genuine. That said, for as many times as that has happened, I have no problem coming across films that do succeed in engaging me emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise, sucking me right in, but rarely does a film strike at something so deep within me that I'm brought to tears.
To say that I've been looking forward all year long to director J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls would be an understatement. Back in 2007, I went to see The Orphanage with little to no expectations, and came out of it having seen one of the best horror films of the modern era. Bayona became an artist I wanted to keep an eye on, and I'm thankful I did, as 2012's The Impossible was great and his work directing the first two episodes of Penny Dreadful helped pull me into the world of that series immediately. To put it lightly, A Monster Calls couldn't get here any sooner.
The film is the story of a young boy named Conor, played by Lewis MacDougall. Conor's mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), is battling an undefined terminal illness, which has forced Conor to deal with a situation no one his age should ever have to go through. His father (Toby Kebbell) lives in the U.S. with his own family, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) isn't a woman he can find any connection with, and - to top it all off - he's bullied at school, where he has no friends, effectively leaving him alone in the world to watch as the one thing he truly loves slowly fades away.
And then, late one night - and living up to the film's title - a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) calls, showing up with a mandate for Conor: The monster is there to help, and to do so, he will return to tell Conor three different tales. Once finished, Conor will in turn tell him a fourth, even though Conor has no idea what purposes the stories serve or what exactly the monster is expecting to hear from him.
To say much more about the narrative would honestly be a disservice to the film. At its core, the fantasy aspects of A Monster Calls are window dressing; an expressive way of coloring Conor's journey through the film, which at its core is a drama about the young boy using fantasy to help him accept what's happening and come to grips with the reality behind potentially having to let go of his mother.
The adult cast - Jones, Kebbell, and Weaver - are all great here, and so is Neeson's titular monster, but this is MacDougall's movie to own, and he does so admirably. There are famous adult actors working today that could never be tasked with carrying a movie with such emotional weight like this almost entirely on their shoulders, so it's a testament to just how great MacDougall is here. The focus is never once taken off of Conor, and the true beauty of the movie is how easily Bayona uses our own human experiences to color in the world around the boy without ever getting sidetracked.
Conor thinks he is alone in worrying for his mother, but he'll come in at the tail end of a fight between his parents or find his grandmother watching home videos of her daughter in the middle of the night, and it's in moments like this that we as an audience immediately know all we need to know about what the adults are going through based off the hushed silences that follow in his wake or the silent expressions highlighted by shimmering eyes, even if Conor himself can't quite see it himself at the time. Conor lashes out, goes unpunished, and questions why, but we know why, and A Monster Calls becomes that much richer for not wasting time in treading ground we've seen before for the sake of needless subplots.
To be fair, it's not like A Monster Calls is telling us the type of story we haven't heard before. Grief, loss, acceptance... These are all things we've seen explored in art and experienced ourselves, and they'll continue to be repackaged in various ways until the end of time. But what makes it all work here is in the presentation and execution; this isn't the type of film that feels like Oscar bait with scenes specifically designed to get attention, and yet, as a whole, it deserves any and all awards consideration it can get.
From Fernando Velazquez's incredibly powerful score to the stylish watercolor artwork bringing to life the monster's tales or the opening credits to the understated elegance of Oscar Faura's cinematography to the unique way writer Patrick Ness' story unfolds, Bayona wrangles it all together into a piece of art that could have easily become a manufactured piece of plastic in someone else's hands. In the film, the monster describes Conor as a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man, and Bayona realizes that idea wonderfully in striking its tone, never too oppressive, never too light-hearted, yet perfectly balanced between despair and optimism in a way that only a child who can't sort out - but will eventually learn - that the two can exist together can feel.
Simply put, A Monster Calls is an experience worth giving in to, and one whose elegant simplicities make it hard to go on about when so much of its strength comes from just experiencing it for yourself. If its fantasy trappings seem too much, cast those fears aside, as it's truly a movie made for everyone, with an ending that feels genuinely earned instead of manipulative, simply because the path getting there is a journey the film asks the audience to take along with Conor, offering hope even in the face of the inevitable without ever getting tangled up in melodramatic trappings or too-saccharine sentimentality. Not only is it another outstanding win for Bayona, it's easily one of my favorite films of the year, and one I'll undoubtedly be spending the rest of my life suggesting to people.
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