As many movies as I’ve watched in my time, it’s been a rare occasion if I was ever moved to tears, with only “Titanic” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” taking the cake as the two that have done so in my short time on Earth. Don’t get me wrong, movies can get me emotional, but it’s a rarity that a film can bring me to the brink of tears. Occasionally, a film will nearly bring me to this point in happiness (ex. the end of “Gravity”) or if the editing and music on a specific scene is good (ex. the final panning shot of “The Divergent Series: Insurgent,” a film that I was hardly a fan of). Sometimes a film can make me feel emotion over the state of film as a whole (ex. a singular scene in “Before I Go to Sleep” that hit me freshman year for no apparent reason), but it’s rare that a film will bring me down from its thematic content.
Yet, here we are with “A Monster Calls,” the film that broke me.
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a young boy living in England. Conor is a quiet, artsy, bullied boy who keeps a close relationship with his mother (Felicity Jones), who also has cancer. When his mother’s condition continues to worsen, Conor’s cold grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and distant father (Toby Kebbell) are brought in to help console and take care of Conor while his mother remains in the hospital. During this time for Conor, he begins to cope through a tree (Liam Neeson), that turns into a monster at night, living outside his window. This monster tells him grand tales of people he has helped in the past and makes a deal with Conor that if he listens to these stories, and then tells the monster a story, he will help him in his trouble.
“A Monster Calls” is an incredible achievement in cinema from the very start because it’s something so incredibly unique that you can’t help but react, whether you’re smiling in the happier scenes or sobbing in the sad ones, “A Monster Calls” hooks you from the very start and refuses to let up. The dull and gray textures of the small, English world that Conor inhabits gives a base for the type of film you’re entering from the beginning. This setting presents a stark and unforgiving environment for Conor that brings us closer to him as a character, we get the real gist of his life from these few, opening moments and this carries on throughout the film in a spectacular way. Normally, in films that focus on troubled white males in leading roles, we’re treated to a barrage of entitled whining and “complex” behavior (i.e. acting like a baby), yet Conor does no such thing. While Conor is hurting and coping, he knows that there is a job to do and a life to live outside of his strife and balances it in a way that any normal human would. It’s such a small thing, but it does wonders.
You might not guess it from the surface, but “A Monster Calls” is through and through an indie film, but its visuals and filmmaking style might say otherwise. I’ll go so far to say that “A Monster Calls” is probably the most visually spectacular indie film that you’ll see this decade so far. The way that director J.A. Bayona balances the fantasy and the drama in the film are spectacular in its willingness to stay rooted in reality for long stretches of time, not injecting fantasy everywhere Conor goes. This is an incredibly restrained move by Bayona, but it works in the film’s favor for more than one reason. For one, the film is given the ample time it needs to pull audience members into these characters lives and struggles without making the film three hours long; The film is able to call itself a fantasy-drama because it is led by a filmmaker not interested in showing off how visually spectacular he can be (that’s reserved for when Bayona directs the “Jurassic World” sequel), but rather in how two genres can be mixed together harmoniously and how each of these genres benefit from one another.
The cast of “A Monster Calls” is as spectacular as its visuals. MacDougall is the type of find that a director pines for in a young actor, as he’s an emotionally resonant, likable, perfectly weird, yet appropriately adorable. Conor is a main character that everyone can get behind because he’s so unspectacular. He isn’t trying to stand out, if anything, he’s trying to stay invisible and we as the audience can’t blame him for that. He isn’t the “chosen one” or the “one who will lead everyone to victory,” he’s just a boy, and that’s what works so wonderfully with him.
The supporting cast also puts in great work as well. Jones’s turn as Mom is one that’s a completely different step from her work in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” but equally, if not more moving in itself. This isn’t the cute, relatable Jones we’ve come to know, this is a much darker incarnation of her acting abilities and she does it with an almost concerning ease. Weaver is also spectacular as Conor’s grandmother, which came as a bit of a surprise honestly. I was a bit apprehensive about Weaver’s English accent from the trailer, but I was floored at the fragile underbelly of this cold character, one that transcends whatever cliché it might put out in one of Weaver’s best performances in over a decade. Kebbell’s Dad, while a bit underused, is also a nice turn for the actor who finds himself doing good work in really bad stuff, so to see him take a turn in something this wonderful is refreshing.
And then there’s Neeson’s Monster, who is just as heartbreaking as any of the other characters in the film. While Hollywood really wants to portray Neeson as a badass action star, they forget that Neeson’s best work comes in his depiction of pain, which The Monster is full of. You never learn the root of The Monster’s pain in the film, but it’s felt incredibly hard in his stories and entrapment in time. This is a character that isn’t human, but has more heart than most human characters you see on screen.
For a good while of “A Monster Calls,” I found myself reactive, but not explicitly emotional. Near the end, a scene occurred where that thought process went out the window and “A Monster Calls” broke me harder than any film has in a long, long time. Bayona has crafted one of the most emotionally resonant films in ages and has done so in such beauty that words can’t fully describe the emotional effect “A Monster Calls” will bring to audiences. This is a beautiful film that fires on all marks, with its stunning direction, heartbreakingly good cast and a story that finds heart in strife, without ever having to manipulatively lead the audience to that conclusion (*cough*“Collateral Beauty”*cough*). “A Monster Calls” does what most can’t.
Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Toby Kebbell and Liam Neeson
Runtime: 108 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images.
Focus Features presents, in association with Participant Media/River Road Entertainment, an Apaches Entertainment – Telecinco Cinema – A Monster Calls, A.I.E. – La Trini production, “A Monster Calls”