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A Monster Calls (A Movie Review)

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls


Starring Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Ben Moor, James Melville, Oliver Steer, Dominic Boyle, Jennifer Lim, Max Gabbay, Morgan Symes, Max Golds, Frida Palsson, Wanda Opalinska, Patrick Taggart, Lily Rose Aslandogdu, Geraldine Chaplin and the voice of Liam Neeson.

Screenplay by Patrick Ness.

Directed by J.A. Bayona.

Distributed by Focus Features.  108 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Despite the title, the posters and the trailers, A Monster Calls is a monster movie in only the broadest sense of the term.  Yes, it does include a several-story-tall mythical tree creature who speaks in the dulcet tones of Liam Neeson and comes at night to haunt a lonely 12-year-old boy in the bogs of Ireland.  Yes, the story does revolve around death, guilt and recrimination.

However, the agenda for A Monster Calls is both subtler and at the same time much more vital and human than a simple nightmare scenario of a child being terrified of huge creatures that go bump in the night.  In fact, the titular monster does not so much cause apoplectic night terrors (though sometimes he does), he instead turns out to be a coping mechanism – perhaps real, perhaps imagined – in which the boy learns to come to terms with the terrors of real life.

The film also takes a hard look at family ties, self-doubt and the restorative power of art.

A Monster Calls is based on the popular young adult novel by the same name by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay for the film.  The book was actually started by novelist Siobhan Dowd, who tragically died of breast cancer soon after the book was started.  Ness had the same agent as Dowd, who asked if he was willing to complete the book.  “She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning.  What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time,” Ness explained in the author’s note for the book.  Ness originally turned the idea down, not sure he could do the story justice.  However, the idea stayed with him, and eventually he saw how he could make it work.

Several years later, it has reached the big screen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, due to Dowd’s own situation, one of the main characters in A Monster Calls is dying of breast cancer.  That character is the mother (Felicity Jones) of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), an introverted and bullied twelve-year-old student.  (Jones’ character’s name is not given, she is literally listed as “Mom” in the closing credits.)

Mom had Conor when she was very young, and now she is as much like his best friend as his mother.  She tries to keep him safe and happy, but her health problems have been lingering and there is only so much she can do.  She receives some help from her ex, Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell), who tries to help when he can, but he does not have the connection or the responsibility to be a proper father.  Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is there to try to help, too, but she is a rather cold, distant woman who is coming to terms with her own loss.

And none of them will tell Conor exactly what is happening.  He keeps lurking around, listening and hoping to get a scrap of information about what is happening to his mom.

This is when the monster appears.  A forty-foot tall creature made up of a giant Yew tree from nearby where he grew up and the earth below it, which speaks in the arresting voice of Liam Neeson.  The monster insists on having Conor listen to a group of three stories over a period of days, and then finally it insists that Conor tell it a story as well.  The stories the monster tells tend to be parables in which the supposed happy endings are compromised by very dark touches, which help the boy to come to terms with the ambiguities of life and love.  Then the monster insists on the boy telling him the story of his helplessness in the face of his mother’s illness.

It is a harsh but intriguing way of getting the boy to come to terms with some very ugly truths.

The storyline has the risk of becoming manipulative and mawkish, but for the most part the movie never falls into that trap.  Instead it balances fear with sweetness, loss with hope, loneliness with togetherness, guilt with innocence.

The relationships in A Monster Calls are rarely what you expect.  In fact, in a nice, subtle touch, at one point the film pans over a group of family photos on the wall, including one that shows Neeson as the grandfather who died even before Conor was born.

MacDougall, who was twelve (and just a year beyond his own mother’s death) when he filmed this, is a revelation in his first starring role.  (He had previously had a supporting role in Joe Wright’s Pan.)  Eschewing most of the typical child-actor cutesy showiness, his performance is a raw nerve of guilt, anger and pain.  He can easily keep up with the veterans working around him.

Jones, hot on the heels of her buzzy starring role in Star Wars: Rogue One, has a sweet, if somewhat necessarily restrained take on the dying mother.  Weaver also does a supremely interesting job in the complicated role, making the grandmother both off-putting and at the same time relatable human.

And Neeson, who is doing his first motion-capture performance, brings the sometimes silly looking tree-creature to astounding life, straddling the line between horrifying and heartfelt.

It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and occasionally A Monster Calls bites off more than it can chew, but for the most part it is a sweet and sensitive parable about love and death.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: December 23, 2016.

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