Year: 2016
Director(s): J.A. Bayona
Writer(s): Patrick Ness
Region of Origin: US / Spain

Rating: PG-13
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Digital, Color, 108 mins

Synopsis: A boy seeks the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mum’s terminal illness. (Source)

A Monster Calls is a kids’ movie for adults – that’s not a backhanded thing, it’s the best kind of compliment you could possibly give. What I mean, is, the older we get, the more we tend to see things through a convoluted filter, and Bayona’s latest helps us to reframe what matters and come to grips with the fact that death, is, in fact a natural and inevitable part of life. Adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel, Bayona translates the author’s poignant story into a rich, visual powerhouse, one brimming with sensitivity and heartbreak, but never without finding the beauty and grace hidden within. What we end up with is a very mature outlook on loss and grief, but also a cinematic spectacle that transcends the screen.

Young Conor O’ Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is just a kid, but the burdens that weigh down on him are immense. He has a nightmare that haunts his days and nights, his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) is dealing with an impenetrable case of cancer, and the kids at school bully him daily. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s eating Conor from the inside out. As the strain from his mother’s illness theaters to break the young boy down, he begins to receive strange visits from a giant monster (Liam Neeson), who seemingly transforms from a distant yew tree sitting in the distance of his bedroom window. The towering creature wants to tell Conor three stories, after which he’ll ask Conor to reveal his nightmare, which may also hold the key to his solace. A distraught Conor reluctantly agrees, and as each story is revealed, the truth behind his suffering becomes apparent.

The story can be a difficult one to sit through at times, blending wonder and whimsy with pain and suffering, but behind it all, there’s a mature message that’s sure to connect with young and old alike. What Bayona and Ness capture best is the confusion and torment of dealing with uncertainty, honing in on the idea that life isn’t fair, especially in relation to losing a loved one. It’s a truth that most of us want to ignore until the time comes, but the film takes a bold stance in illustrating that it’s okay to be hurt and scared, that we can turn these things into strengths without forgetting the ones who’ve left us behind. The other layer of the film touches upon the idea of stories themselves, that fiction is the truth hiding in plain sight, and that it can help us to heal and makes sense of things in our own way. The metaphors here may be on the nose at times, but what the film has to say is so powerful and needs to be heard.

Visually, Bayona has crafted another eloquent experience that finds its prose through lavish visuals. From the watercolor animations that take us through the monster’s stories, to the way Bayona delicately builds Conor’s world of isolation, there’s a lot of restraint and detail in every frame. Oscar Faura’s photography is drenched in atmosphere and color, with compositions that bring a lot of Ness’ book to life without pale verisimilitude. There’s a deep understanding of the source material that makes the film a true wonder, and its technical wizardry helps us to feel the deep emotions at play.

Performance wise, Lewis MacDougall’s Conor is utterly piercing. There’s a lot of texture at play, and MacDougall is great at bringing his character’s pain to life. Conor lashes out throughout the film, but MacDougall makes the entire thing feel genuine, with his character feeling more lost and desperate than whiny and unruly. It’s a knockout performance that could be the start of a bright career, and I’ll definitely be waiting to see where he takes this. As Lizzie, Felicity Jones is solid as always, delivering a much more internal performance than MacDougall. Most of what Jones really has to say is in her body language and eyes, conveying both peace and anger in one single stare. As the monster, Liam Neeson’s voice is perfect, conveying both mystery and a larger-than-life quality that feels oddly comforting. There’s a bit of meta-casting going on here, when you think about the tragic death of Neeson’s late wife, and you can feel the experience of this trauma feeding the wise character’s sense of compassion and understanding.

A Monster Calls is pure cinematic catharsis. It’s a film that doesn’t dare shy away from the darkness and pain that shapes our lives, but is also a film that challenges us to find the good even in the darkest times. Bayona’s latest hits us without fake sentimentality, it’s brutal and complex and knows that sometimes life doesn’t give us an easy answer – nor does it owe us one. If there’s one film this year that makes you cry (possibly more than once), this is it. Trust me though, the tears are worth this beautiful little gem.