A Monster Calls is a beautiful and inspirational depiction of a young person’s battle with grief – but that doesn’t mean it’s for every young person.
When single mother Lizzie O’Malley (Felicity Jones) is diagnosed with a terminal illness, her young son, Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is left reeling by the news – desperate to save his mother and horrified at the prospect of losing her. During the day, Conor becomes increasingly isolated from his peers, thanks to “normal” kid problems (school bullies), then spends his evenings comforting and helping his ailing mother – with limited support from his grieving grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and his absentee father (Toby Kebbell).
It is amongst this uncertainty and pain that Conor is awoken one night by a mysterious tree-like monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who promises to tell the boy three stories – and suggests that, once the three stories are told, it will be Conor’s responsibility to reveal a hidden truth. Despite his initial fear of the monster, Conor begins to view his supernatural visitor, and the stories, as a means by which he might save his mother from death – only to realize that real people, and real life, are much more complicated.
Directed by J. A. Bayona (The Impossible) from a screenplay by Patrick Ness (who wrote the source book), based on an idea from the late author Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls weathered a complicated journey to the big screen – a journey that was punctuated by the same illness, loss, and human uncertainty highlighted within the final film. Still, it is the small things, the quiet moments and simple human truths, rather than the fantasy premise, that makes A Monster Calls an exceptional and moving story of hope in the face of grief.
Bayona’s movie adaptation takes liberties with the source Monster Calls story but any adjustments are purposeful: making certain the narrative and themes are as poignant for their new medium and audience as they were in print form. Fortunately, the jump from novel text to live-action film is relatively straightforward and the book’s various parallels, analogies, and overarching message are not lost in adaptation. Bayona sets a rich stage, populating his film with layered characters and authentic drama – all observed from Conor’s limited (and often raw) perspective.
That said, in spite of the film’s young lead, storybook-like animated sequences, and uplifting marketing, it’s important to note that A Monster Calls is a mature tale – one that might be too dark for certain adolescent viewers (something Ness himself recently pointed out). As a book that could be consumed in portioned segments, between which parents could stop and discuss sensitive situations with children, A Monster Calls may have been approachable for younger readers; however, as a movie experience where viewers have less control over story flow, filmgoers (regardless of age) are locked into a tale of terminal illness, grief, and fear (albeit with an optimistic resolution). For that reason, parents and guardians should approach the movie with a clear understanding of what Bayona and Ness have crafted: A Monster Calls is a beautiful and inspirational depiction of a young person’s battle with grief – but that doesn’t mean it’s for every young person.
Viewers will recognize a handful of familiar ideas, relationships, and film tropes in A Monster Calls but the movie’s strengths aren’t defined by the amount of new ground it covers; instead, Bayona excels in depicting a gut-wrenching set of circumstances with sincerity and without compromise. Conor’s limited point of view, constricted by repressed anger and sorrow, offers Bayona a unique narrative frame – which he fills with rich layers and connections for audiences to unpack (especially when it comes to the monster’s stories).
The film’s supporting cast is relatively small with brief but meaty parts for Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, and Toby Kebbell. Each of the established talents gives a honest and heartfelt performance in their respective roles but it is Lewis MacDougall that carries the movie. The young actor is tasked with a variety of challenges (including a 30-foot CGI co-star and heart-rending scenes of graphic emotion) – all of which MacDougall meets head-on. It’s a brave and vulnerable turn that shapes every corner of the film – ensuring that Conor’s perception of his situation, the adults and kids around him, as well as what to make of his supernatural visitor, are faithful to a person (young or old) whose life has been entirely upended.
Unsurprisingly, Bayona and frequent collaborator/cinematographer Óscar Faura supply viewers rich visuals – inspired by Jim Kay’s award-winning illustration work in the Monster Calls book. Bayona instills the movie with subtle flair and atmosphere throughout but scenes between Conor and the monster are particularly lavish – most apparent in Conor’s storybook-like interpretations of the monster’s three stories. Each tale is presented with a distinct aesthetic while reflecting thematic through-lines that borrow subtle visual cues from Conor’s own life. The result? Gorgeous animated sequences that never violate the film’s careful adherence to Conor’s point-of-view: the monster tells a story but the version of that story on screen is filtered through Conor’s imagination (not to mention his own anxieties and bias). Given how the stories are applied in resolving the central conflict of A Monster Calls, the considerate depiction of these sequences is sure to offer some of the film’s most impactful moments – and biggest opportunities for post-viewing reflection.
Thanks to smart changes to the source material story, Bayona and Ness deliver A Monster Calls adaption that makes artistic use of the film medium – rather than simply transferring book pages to the big screen. It’s a challenging movie, with rewarding emotional payoff, but may be too dark for certain young viewers and too taxing for sensitive viewers who, owing to the spirited Monster Calls marketing, might not be not prepared for the film’s resolute portrayal of grief and illness. Still, as charming as it is thought-provoking, A Monster Calls succeeds in honoring Siobhan Dowd’s original concept – just as it provides a relatable tale of fear and hope (especially for anyone who has endured a crushing loss).
A Monster Calls runs 108 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images. Now playing in theaters.
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