MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Dark Fantasy Drama/Stars: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, James Melville, Geraldine Chaplin, Max Golds; Voice of: Liam Neeson/Runtime: 108 minutes
I think it is safe to start this review off by letting you in on a truth that we all eventually must learn whether we like to or not. That being that, the coldest part of getting older is when we have to come to grips with the fact that each and every one of us is a flawed person. Indeed the rising like the sun comprehension that our parents aren’t flawless by any measure of the imagination nor for that matter are we immune from being hurt is a lesson that is tied to the moment where we start to lose our childlike innocence. A moment that is perhaps best defined as the moment when you learn that the world around us is a significantly nastier one than what works of fantasy as well as our parents had been trying to get us to think it was. Yet perhaps more important than that as you grow up is the cognizance that yes life can be rough, but at the same time the moments of comprehension and honesty found which showcase the human condition at its most complex can also be quite beautiful in their own right. Suffice it to say that it is this idea of human entanglements that helps to mold and craft film helmer J.A. Bayona’s 2016 slice of cinema A Monster Calls. Indeed here is a slice of cinema that takes us to two distinct worlds. The first is one where a giant tree can teach life lessons through the prism of fantasy including that much-adored princes can do fairly nefarious things, seemingly sinister witches can be treated to second chances, and a person and their beliefs can be eternally cursed. The second is one where a boy on the cusp of manhood refuses to be rejected for simply wanting to be seen and listened to say nothing of trying to cope with his mom’s impending mortality as well as the overwhelming grief even if how he deals with these things isn’t perhaps the best way in the world hence the monster coming into his life. Suffice it to say that yes this slice of cinema is genuinely heartbreaking as well as thoroughly emotional, but it also is very much a gripping and fantastic film. Indeed from the truly riveting work by the crew behind the camera to the arresting work done by the immensely talented cast in front of the camera (even if we only hear one’s voice and nothing more), this slice of cinema is one that will take you on a riveting journey through a world where, much like our own, heartache happens, but if we’re fortunate enough maybe just maybe there’s a monster nearby who can help us not exactly stop it, but rather process it and emerge from it stronger than we could ever have imagined.
The plot is as follows: Now before this slice of cinema causes your emotional river to overflow which in turn will then result in you finding yourself powerfully sobbing your eyes out, this film introduces us to a young boy by the name of Conor. A young boy who incidentally is at that proverbial crossroads in life between boy and manhood yet is not approaching it the way a lot of boys do. Rather, he is approaching it with a mix of fatigue, apathy, and just plain anger at the world around him. We soon learn that the reason our young hero is approaching the world in this manner is not only because his dear mum Lizzie is tragically dying from cancer, but he is the victim of some vicious bullies at school, his dad lives in California with his new family and really doesn’t want anything to do with Conor or his mom, and if things get any worse, he will have to move in with his stern and stoic grandmother who he really isn’t too fond of to put it lightly. Suffice it to say that this collection of tragedy that would be overwhelming for any single person to have to handle to say nothing of a kid who’s transitioning into manhood. Suffice it to say that our hero, blessed with an overactive imagination, decides to do the only thing he can to help him cope: he conjures up a monster he skillfully drew up. Yet in this slice of cinema, the titular monster is not a big hairy ape, a lizard metaphor for the fallout from using atomic weaponry, or a creature created by a deranged mad scientist. Rather, it is no more and no less than an old and giant yew tree that is in the vicinity of Connor’s bedroom window that comes roaring vividly to life. Suffice it to say that it isn’t long before we see this creature rips its roots from the earth and boldly make its way to Conor’s window in the middle of the night with its eyes ablaze, and its voice growling away whilst also being taller than any other house in Conor’s neighborhood. Yet while it isn’t entirely clear if this creature is rooted (pun intended) in reality or if he is a figment of our hero’s vivid imagination the truth is dear reader that isn’t really that important. What is important is that for our hero this monster is his support system to aid him in understand the world as it slowly but surely becomes a lot harder to make his way through let alone comprehend. Yet while we learn that the Monster is certainly willing to aid our hero on this, there is a condition or two included in the deal. Namely that the Monster will come by to visit him on three separate nights where he will regale our hero with a story, but on the 4th visit it will be up to Conor to regale the Monster with a tale of his own. Suffice it to say that by the time these stories are done Conor, along with you, will not only learn more than he ever intended, but also maybe just maybe find a strength within himself he never knew he had and that might be the thing he needs the most to get through this truly dark patch in his life once and for all…
Now based on a story by Patrick Ness, who also contributed this slice of cinema’s screenplay, this absolutely gorgeously-constructed parable might be concentrated on a specific person going through a certain type of agony at a certain period of time in their life. Yet with that in mind, what this film does so well in that regard is it manages to do an ingenious job of taking every aspect of its narrative and then organically expanding it so that it is relatable on a universal rather than an individual by individual level. Yes I suppose a fair portion of that relatability can most assuredly be placed at the feet at the trinity of tales regaled to us, and Conor, by the Monster since not only are they vividly conjured up with the aid of some truly beautiful watercolor animation, but they also possess the eternality of say a story by the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen. With that being said, this is one slice of cinema that I promise you will most assuredly resonate with any of you out there who has ever had to deal with the potency of mortality, the heartbreak of grief, and/or who have desperately tried to grapple with how the world can just be downright wicked at times. Indeed the clarity with how this slice of cinema showcases these truly immense feelings can only be stated by saying that this slice of cinema is one that is able to go to the place where your own collection of emotions are stored and subsequently make you question the kind of soil that you have planted them in. To be sure, I have no doubt in my mind that in another universe there is a variant of this slice of cinema that is guilty of being downright exploitative to say nothing of constructing moments that at specific points gets the audience to cry the prerequisite waves of tears. A claim that, intriguingly enough, people (but not this reviewer for what it’s worth) have said that this slice of cinema’s helmer is most definitely guilty of engaging in with particular regard to a truly gripping film he made all the way back in 2012 known as The Impossible. Yet in this slice of cinema, we see that the director and his talented crew make the ingenious choice to permit our young hero’s agony to present itself externally courtesy of flares of fury or just solemn backtracks into quiet internal exile. Indeed there are no lengthy monologues that he could even attempt to regale us with since what he is going through is very much elementary. Likewise, for all the vivid and deeply imaginative time that our hero spends with the titular Monster, we see that when he has returned to reality where everything that he has to deal with is located all he can do to cope with it all is one of only two things: seemingly lay into everyone and everything at random or look into himself in a desperate attempt to just burrow away from the world and hide. As a result we see that the movie brilliantly utilizes this to allow the emotions being felt by the main hero to be put on the backburner until just the right moment at which time the crew does a beautiful job of making it feel not only cathartic, but also as genuinely organically as possible as well.
Of course, all the phenomenal work done behind the camera can only go so far if the cast of characters in this, with particular regard to the lead character of Conor, are not relatable in any way, sense, or fashion. Thankfully I can safely say that is most certainly not the case as they all are truly remarkable. This starts with Lewis MacDougall who, in the lead role, is absolutely phenomenal. Indeed here is a young actor who has quite the work load in this due to being darn near every scene and yet shows he is more than able to showcase phenomenal genuine emotional range whilst never really feeling like he is being over the top or melodramatic in any way. Rather, he is just honestly portraying a young man who is being hit with the fact that he could very well lose someone who is an anchor and a solid part of what keeps him grounded in the world yet doesn’t know how to respond to it. It is in that respect that MacDougall delivers and then some in the best way possible. Of course, it also certainly helps that the support cast backing him up in this is especially top-notch. This includes Felicity Jones who in her scenes conveys a true sense of heartbreak for both herself and her fictional son as their time together slowly but surely ebbs away, Sigourney Weaver who as Conor’s seemingly stoic grandmother does a great job at keeping her own emotions about the situation at bay until just the right moment, Toby Kebbell who yes plays the aloof parent but thankfully not in a way that makes him a bad guy by any means, and Liam Neeson who does a brilliant job of transplanting his distinct gruff Irish growl to the role of the titular Monster and in the process gives our main character someone who is both a comforting presence yet also a strict and wise teacher in the best way possible. Suffice it to say that the cast in this all do a terrific job at bringing the world of the film vividly to life whilst also beautifully strengthening the thematic concepts at the heart of it as well.
All in all dear reader I am proud to say that the slice of cinema known as A Monster Calls is an outright triumph in how it manages to obtain and maintain a seemingly impossible balancing act of sorts between a pair of narrative styles that lie at the opposite ends of the spectrum as it were. Indeed on one side of the coin, we see that this slice of cinema is one that embraces metaphor like there was no tomorrow. Yet on the other side of the coin, we see that this slice of cinema is one that is as sharp and to the point as a recently sharpened kitchen knife. Suffice it to say that it is in the manner that the narrative ingeniously blends these two narrative styles which couldn’t be more unalike that we see it is able to discover a lovely gift for taking us on a journey through the nuances, heartaches, and grim yet honest reality of what life is like for us as human organisms. An organism which, incidentally, is one that is both sadder yet wiser due to being very much aware of our pain and suffering on a multitude of levels whilst also being cursed with a comprehension on how something functions yet not always being able to explain just why other things occur in the first place. With that in mind this is a slice of cinema, which is a cinematic adaptation of a story that was first conjured up by a terminally ill woman by the name of Siobhan Dowd and then subsequently written down for the masses by a young man named Patrick Ness following her tragic demise, that is one that bravely and also honestly provides a very focused lens on one of the most basic and yet also relatable of agonies that eventually is inflicted upon all of us as people. That of course being the pain and heartache from losing someone we care the world about (or having to face their impending demise with no way to stop it) and the ensuing anguish on both a physical and an emotional level that is the fallout whenever this occurs to us in the course of our lives. No this topic is not one that is novel by any means to the world of film (or any art form in existence for that matter). Yet A Monster Calls manages to distinguish itself by dealing with this subject matter as gracefully as possible. With that being said make no mistake dear reader: A Monster Calls is most assuredly by no means an easy slice of cinema to sit through though if it were I don’t think it would be as successful as it ultimately is. Indeed equal parts bleak yet also optimistic, this slice of cinema is one that doesn’t hesitate to go for the gut nor does it try to cinematically craft an 11th hour miracle. Instead this slice of cinema is one that both stays on its intended course, is completely honest from beginning to end, and is one that I can definitely see being must-see viewing for each and every one of us at one point or another through the course of our individual lives. Make of that therefore what thou will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I proudly and emotionally give A Monster Calls “2016” a solid 4 out of 5.