A Monster Calls (2016)

Every now and then, a film will hit you in just the right way.  The best ones can touch long buried emotions. A Monster Calls is one of those films.

Warning: There are minor SPOILERS in this review. While the trailers give you an inkling of what happens in the film, I do my best not to give away too much in my reviews. However, discussing this film in depth requires delving into some important plot points. You have been warned.

Still there? Okay, let’s proceed…

Anchored by newcomer Lewis MacDougall, A Monster Calls approaches mortality and loss in a mature and often beautiful way. Despite some pacing issues and a sometimes heavy-handed way of expressing its message, the film shows us that while art isn’t there to offer an escape from the pain of loss, it’s there to help heal us.

A Story About A Boy

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Lewis MacDougall as Conor source: Focus Features

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a young boy dealing with his single mother Lizzie’s (Felicity Jones) arduous cancer treatments. Suffering from nightmares, bullies at school, a strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and absentee father (Toby Kebbell), the imaginative young boy tries to escape into his art. One night, he is visited by a Monster (Liam Neeson), born from a yew tree, who demands to know his “truth.” Conor goes along simply because he hopes this Monster will help him deal with his mounting troubles.

While the cast is full of highly respected names, A Monster Calls belongs to young Lewis MacDougall. As the young Conor, MacDougall expresses the boy’s sadness and anger perfectly as his troubles continue to mount. There are multiple silent moments in the film and MacDougall excels in these scenes, impressive for an actor of his age. That said, MacDougall has no problem expressing the anguish Conor feels to heartbreaking effect.

Though her part is relatively small, Felicity Jones is great as Conor’s mother Lizzie. She manages to mirror her son’s emotions, expressing her sadness and frustration in both words and actions. At one point, the father says that Conor turned out just like her. It’s a subtle connection that adds so much to the performance. At the same time, Jones is great when Lizzie has to be brave for Conor. At no point do you ever doubt that she is utterly dedicated to her son.

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Felicity Jones as Lizzie source: Focus Features

Liam Neeson’s gravely delivery is perfect for the Monster, blending menace during the more intense moments with a surprising softness in the quieter times. Sigourney Weaver is also solid as the stern grandmother and has a very powerful scene with MacDougall where she never speaks a word but creates so much tension you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. But in the end, she isn’t developed very well. Why is she so strict? We never find out. Kebbell has the smallest role as Conor’s father, but does a good job portraying the well-meaning man.

While the performances are universally great, the pacing of the story feels a little off. The Monster is introduced somewhat abruptly and the relationship between the two solidifies a little too easily. And the Monster is a little too heavy handed when he gives Conor advice. But once that relationship does come together it’s great to see. It’s an interesting relationship; The Monster is not quite a father figure or even a mentor, becoming more of a spiritual advisor.

A Monster Calls also feels overly long, though this may have been on purpose. The film has a very deliberate pace that wears on you. The process of a loved one suffering through a terminal illness can feel like an eternity, no matter how much you love them, and this film reflects it. This may be a coincidence or me giving the film too much credit, but be forewarned: This isn’t an easy watch.

And that is one of the chief strengths of A Monster Calls. While it has its sentimental moments, it also pushes Conor to deal with the situation. He can’t wallow in his pain, he has to deal with it. The pain he feels in the film is part of growing up and it isn’t easy.

Like A Painting

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A Boy and his Monster source: Focus Features

The Monster’s CG work is incredibly well done and is the obvious standout visual in the film. He always feels tangible, with every movement feeling like it has impact. The Monster’s face is also impressively expressive.

While the Monster is the standout visual, A Monster Calls is a beautiful film overall. Director J.A. Bayona and cinematographer Oscar Faura create a canvas of visual storytelling, often relying on silent moments to express powerful emotions. Annoyingly, the camera does get shaky for no reason in some places, but during some of the more emotional moments it’s gone.

My favorite visual sequences occur during the Monster’s stories. When he is first introduced, The Monster promises to tell Conor three stories before Conor can give him his “truth.” These stories are told with a distinctive visual style, with a watercolor painting aesthetic that stands in start contrast to the rest of the film. They are a joy to watch and it makes me wish that Bayona would try to make a full film with this art style.

The stories themselves are pretty compelling, reflecting Conor’s story in many ways. There is a connection that I will not spoil here that proves how art connects us. Art is a reflection of our lives, something that we use to express our happiness at the best of times and what we use to cope during our most tragic moments.

For Conor, these stories, the Monster and his sketches aren’t an escape. Whether or not he knows it, these pieces of art are reflecting his life. A Monster Calls uses its own visual style to reflect the tragic world of a little boy struggling with the possible loss of everything he holds dear.

Deeply Personal

I had some trouble deciding to see A Monster Calls. Those closest to me know that it deals with a subject that cuts to my heart (And to those who know me…sorry, I may have just spoiled the film for you). You could almost say that it would be sadistic of me to watch it.

But as I said, art reflects our lives and helps us cope. This film brought out an emotion I thought I had put away, but not in a bad way. It helped me deal with that emotion by bringing it out. Life is learning to get past the hard times and sometimes a good film helps get you through it.