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A Monster Calls (2017) Review

A Monster Calls is a 2017 fantasy drama about a boy with no friends who seeks the help of a tree monster to help cope with his mother’s growing illness.

A child turning to fantasy to deal with the troubles of being themselves is a staple of children’s movies, with any number of them creating fantastical worlds where these young minds find safety and hope. With A Monster Calls, there is much that feels familiar in this story of a boy facing the truth about death and real sorrow, yet has much to offer in this metaphorical journey that will affect you in ways you might not be ready for.

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a typical, slightly underdeveloped young teen who spends much of his waking time in daydreams, bullied relentlessly by other boys, hiding in the corners of his classrooms. On his mind almost without pause, is his mum (Felicity Jones), in the last stages of her battle with a terrible illness. He is in great denial about her condition, convinced she will get better, furious at his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who is ill-equipped to take care of him and her, pragmatically trying to prepare him for a fast-coming future without a mother as she turns to the boy’s distant Dad (Tony Kebbell) for help.

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Meanwhile, there rests a large yew tree in the nearby churchyard cemetery that draws Conor’s attention through his bedroom window. It comes alive in Conor’s eyes, a gigantic wooden creature coated in bark and sinewy limbs and a deep menacing voice (by Liam Neeson) who beckons to the boy to listen as he tells three stories. When he is done though, Conor must tell his own, that of the nightmare that rules his dreams.

Directed by J.A. Bayona, based on the book of the same name by Peter Ness, A Monster Calls is not a conventional cancer story, despite how unabashedly it faces the reality of what it is. Delving into the layers that fall around it as a boy tries to understand the deteriorating condition of his mother, it deals with the stages of his proximity to it, from the anger he feels to his helplessness in stopping it to the trappings of his time in the cold, museum-like estate of his grandmother. The point of it all is Conor’s seeming stagnation to the hardships and hurdles, and the need to take action.

Hence, the need for The Monster, a creature with fearsome fiery eyes and long spindly fingers that appears to come for him with harmful intent, yet in fact is anything but, treating the boy with an uncommon kindness and attention. As Conor goes about his troubling days, each marked by the routines of a bully at school, the failing of his mother, and the inability to seemingly control any of it, The Monster arrives with particular timeliness, and spins allegorical tales of cloudy wisdom that find connections to the world beyond.

A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls, 2017 © Focus Features

Each of these stories are animated in different ways and attempt to compel Conor to see and react with better insight. When each are finished, there is a subtle shift in who Conor is and how he deals with the adults in his life, all of whom seem less than transparent with the boy. A recurring theme his him causing excessive damage and expecting, almost tempting punishment, but being told there is no point. It’s a weight that nearly crushes him, a discipline he feels he deserves. And that is the truth that lingers heavy on the film and builds to an emotional revelation that despite some contrivances, feels honest and earned.

Everything depends on The Monster of course, a creation that by its very nature could be ruinous in finding its place in the admittedly heartbreaking story, and both the CGI monster and Neeson’s superb voice work are exactly what make it all come together with such affecting resonance. Bayona is an expert storyteller and earnestly crafts a deeply personal story that might stray a bit in the middle, but powerfully comes together in its third act. While it might struggle with one too many issues, especially the go-to trend of bullies and the purely movie-manifested comeuppance these stereotypical thugs get, the remainder of Conor’s journey feels genuine. We truly get a sense of what The Monster is and why he has come, something that in the final frames feels even more so authentic.

A Monster Calls is a visually and emotionally arresting experience that takes its time to clutch you, but be assured it will and remains so for some time after. Its respect and sincerity for the theme is its greatest achievement, and for so many who will feel companionship with it, this will be a film of great importance.

A Monster Calls (2017) Review

Movie description: A Monster Calls is a 2017 fantasy drama about a boy with no friends who seeks the help of a tree monster to help cope with his mother's growing illness.

Director(s): J.A. Bayona

Actor(s): Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones

Genre: Fantasy, Drama

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  1. Melanie Anstett January 23, 2017