While it may feature a talking tree, J. A. Bayona’s (The Orphanage, The Impossible) latest film is a far cry from the bright and fun adventure that is James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Based on Patrick Ness’ beloved novel of the same name, A Monster Calls is a wonderfully crafted cross between dark fairy tale and coming-of-age story with a universal lesson at its core.
12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) lives with his terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones). Complicating his life is his grandma (Sigourney Weaver), who wants him to live with her. Conor sees her as too elderly and unyielding, whereas he is young and creative – they’re just too different. Add bullying at school and an appearance from his estranged father (Toby Kebbell), and it’s completely understandable why poor Conor isn’t exactly holding his head high. To cope, Conor constantly draws and loses himself in his own imagination. One night, at 12:07am, he is visited by a yew tree monster (voiced by the gravelly baritone Liam Neeson) who explains that he will tell him three stories, after which Conor must reciprocate with a fourth.
Audiences, like Conor, may be initially confused by these seemingly pointless tales, but as the film progresses we see how pertinent they are to the main story. The first two stories are told with beautiful animation, which isn’t used for the third or fourth—a visual metaphor, perhaps, for how Conor is becoming wise to the harsh and complex realities of life. Even the titular monster may not be what he appears to be; is he a part of Conor’s imagination? Why does he reach out now? His real intention is eventually revealed, providing a satisfying conclusion for the patient viewer, and enlightening those with keen eyes.
The whole cast is on point throughout the entire film, from Jones as the stoic cancer-battling mother, to Kebbell’s caring-but-distant father. Though not initially so, Weaver is effective – seeing her daughter become weaker takes its toll, an arc Weaver drives home in her appearance and the way she carries herself. It is young MacDougall, however, who drives the film. His performance runs the gamut of emotions, delivering a range that is incredible to see in a child actor. There’s awe as he watches the classic 1933 King Kong with his mother, pure rage when he faces a bully, and profound sadness when the film calls for it.
This is cinematographer Óscar Faura’s third collaboration with Bayona, a partnership that has produced yet another fine result. The entire film is beautifully shot and framed; soft warm tones and earthy hues comfort us for scenes in Conor’s home, coldness with blacks and greys await when we step into the bleak outside world.
Bayona has crafted a touching fantasy, a therapeutic fable that demonstrates the power of stories. The film boasts excellent performances, strong visuals and a sense of wonder, but it’s more than that – A Monster Calls works as an indispensable lesson on the nature of grief.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10