When you are a kid and something terrifying or traumatic happens, especially family-related, you develop coping mechanisms to deal with it; or ignore it until it becomes unavoidable. Any outlet is a worthy distraction from the intense feelings growing inside you. You might find solace in a sport, a craft, a good book, a video game, a TV show, or your favorite movie. Sometimes your own imagination is sanctuary enough. Summoning characters that make you feel better and talking to them as if they are real. Working through the pain by way of self-analysis. It’s not always the best option, but it’s a start. What is important is that eventually you come to terms with the situation and accept things for what they are. In time you learn to move forward.
In A Monster Calls, directed by J.A. Bayona, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a young boy living in England with his gravely ill mother(Felicity Jones). His father lives in the States, he has no friends, and is bullied everyday in school. When his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) shows up to take care of things while his mother is away, Conor discovers that the tree located in a cemetery behind his house, and just beyond the hills, is secretly a monster in disguise. The monster (Liam Neeson) is immense and destructive, but only visible to Conor. He intends to tell Conor three stories over time. Stories that may or may not prove useful. It’s hard to tell if all this is Conor’s imagination or some magical force that happened to find a boy in need so he could impart his wisdom. It’s up to Conor to work through this situation and figure out what is really going on.
The overall atmosphere in A Monster Calls feel like a more mature version of The Neverending Story. In that film you had a bullied kid who found comfort in old stories that involved giant monsters. It was a celebration of childhood imagination. In this film you get a much more engaging correlation between the fantastic stories and the kid’s life. They are almost one and the same and it’s driven brilliantly by Conor’s emotions. The more damaged and unraveled Conor became, the more violent the story was. It brings us closer to the character in an entertaining and thoughtful way.
A big part of this movie depended on the effectiveness of the Monster. The CGI for him is done pretty well, but it does sometimes pull you out of the film. Fortunately there is a good amount of editing that allows his presence to blend in with the real characters. Liam Neeson’s acting is the biggest reason for why the Monster works as well as it does. He gives an extra dimension to his personality and doesn’t detract from the sincerity or gravity of the moment. When the Monster appears, you feel the mood of the room change and are aware that anything could happen. The interactions we get between Conor and the Monster are mesmerizing and thought-provoking, but sometimes I did hope for a little extra nuance to round out the Monster’s character. I would imagine the brevity of his appearances are meant to strengthen the idea that all this may be in Conor’s head.
My favorite scenes are not only between Conor and the Monster, but also between Conor and his mother. Felicity Jones brings so much energy to her performance that, even though almost every scene she’s in is tragic and heart-wrenching, you can’t look away. She gives us insight into their relationship and where his courage comes from. You hang onto her every word, especially since she’s the most important part of Conor’s life at this moment. Jones makes you feel as strongly for her character as Conor does.
There’s a great buildup of anticipation in this movie as it progresses. Even though some scenes feel drawn out or unnecessary. I don’t think the scenes with Conor’s father added anything to the story. Conor has got so many other unfortunate situations to deal with on top of his sick mother that this one just didn’t matter to me. If anything it would have made more sense for him to be in isolation throughout the film in order to emphasize his reliance on his imagination and stories.
A Monster Calls is a wonderful film that pulls from a child’s imagination to tell a child’s story in a very adult way. It doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges one has to face in a real tragedy, but still manages to make it palatable for an audience so they aren’t reaching for the tissue every five minutes. Lewis MacDougall gives a great performance as Conor and anchors that emotional tether between us and his character. Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver both give weight to this film as well. Liam Neeson is familiar, warm, and frightening as the Monster. Whether he is real or not, Neeson makes you want to see more of that character and listen to his stories. I don’t know if young children would find this film entertaining, but if any of them have had to deal with a family tragedy I think this would help comfort them. It may comfort adults too. It’s encouraging to know that in your most vulnerable moments you aren’t alone in how you feel and what is happening to you. What matters is that you let people in when you can and deal with it when the time comes.
See more about the movie here.
A MONSTER CALLS:
About A Monster Calls
Synopsis: A boy seeks the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mom’s terminal illness.
Director: J.A. Bayona
Writer: Patrick Ness
Stars: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell
Runtime: 1 Hour, 48 Minutes