A Monster Calls FILM REVIEW
A MONSTER CALLS
Director: J. A. Bayona
Screenplay: Patrick Ness
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson, Toby Kebbell
Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
**** out of *****
Young Conor seeks the help of a giant tree monster in J.A. Bayona's A MONSTER CALLS.
Benjamin Franklin famously said that "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." It's a sad and undeniable fact of life that we all must face and come to terms with death and the resulting grieving process. We all come to grieve in our own way which makes us human. We go through a series of emotions, in some cases none at all, as we attempt to reconcile this loss. Sometimes we react as expected and other times our behavior may be deemed contrarian by others. Regardless of how old you may be, the grieving process can be an emotional taxing experience. As an adult, we may have the ability to comprehend and process a loss but what about a child? Is this young mind mature enough to cope with such unbearable heartbreak? How would they react? With his fantastical and heart-wrenching adaptation of Patrick Ness' A MONSTER CALLS, director J.A Bayona answers those questions as he follows young Conor as he tries to come to terms with the impending passing of his terminally ill mother.
On the surface, thanks in part to the marketing, A MONSTER CALLS looks like it could be a fun fantasy-adventure in the vein of THE NEVER ENDING STORY. Instead it has much more in common, albeit much less comedy, with the comedy-drama THE FAMILY STONE which appeared to be a fun and frothy holiday comedy but was in fact a heartbreaking, touching, funny and emotional holiday treat. Both films have equal measures of heart and emotion and both films look at how family copes with the imminent loss of a loved one. A MONSTER CALLS focuses on young Conor and how he is able to use his rich, fertile and imaginative mind to manifest the ultimate coping mechanism, a giant tree monster. The Monster is an engaging character who empathetically guides Conor by telling him stories while driving him towards revealing his own truth. As the film draws closer to his truth the film becomes progressively more poignant and heart-wrenching which may be more than some audience members could bear as a few walk outs were witnessed at one screening.
As great as the visual effects are in this film, nothing can hold a candle to the performance of young Lewis MacDougall. He truly captures the emotional struggles that Conor is facing on a day-to-day basis. Life waits for no man, nor child, as Conor must not only cope with his ill mother but the daily ridicule from school bullies and the frustration of being forced to live with his grandmother, played by Sigourney Weaver. MacDougall draws you in while he tries to sort things out and shows a maturity beyond his years as the film progresses. MacDougall carries the film and delivers an excellent performance. His co-stars also deliver very strong and emotional performances. Weaver is great as the put upon grandmother and Felicity Jones is excellent as his Mum. The scenes between Jones and MacDougall are particularly strong as they both effectively play the raw emotions of the moment. Of course, there is Liam Neeson who provides the comforting voice of The Monster.
Director Bayona, who previously directed THE IMPOSSIBLE and THE ORPHANAGE, creates a visually arresting and emotionally compelling family drama. Death can be a touchy subject when trying to help young ones understand what is happening or has happened. Bayona's film, along with the screenplay by the novel's author Patrick Ness, is a fairly comforting film despite its subject matter. It presents one possible scenario and allows viewers, young and old, to find their own truth in empathizing and relating with the emotions that young Conor faces. Admiral James T. Kirk once said, "How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life." A MONSTER CALLS, like life, can be a hard journey but when the lights come on and we exit the theatre we are reminded that things will be alright, perhaps a bit empty and sad, but ultimately it will be okay. And, by the way, it's okay to cry, too.