A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Deep inside “A Monster Calls,” based on the novel and screenplay by Patrick Ness, lies a heart of a warrior, and that heart is carried by a twelve-year-old named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. Yet despite the premise of the film, the picture is not a standard “cancer movie” in which family members gather from across the world merely to hug and cry together because the plot demands that they do. Rather, the film takes a serious look at the fear of losing a loved one from a disease that ravages thoroughly through the eyes of a young artist increasingly desperate to see the person he values most be well again.

Its fantastic elements offer stunning beauty, the magical realism exactly right for the story being told. It can stand strong against great works such as Guillermo del Toro’s “El laberinto del fauno” and “El espinazo del diablo,” as well as Víctor Erice’s “El espíritu de la colmena.” The computer animation of the giant yew tree that visits our protagonist at exactly 12:07 A.M., voiced by Liam Neeson, is arresting in its detail, from the way it moves its branchy limbs to its inferno eyes and dominant bearing. It is a smart and refreshing choice not to have reduced this character to being cute or friendly; its firm personality is at times intimidating, seldom offering a deeply wicked sense of humor. The monster demands that Conor tell him a fourth story after the tree shares three stories with the boy. All of the tales are compelling.

Equally important is the look of the spaces the characters inhabit. The outdoors is often depicted as rainy, cold, and gray. Hidden places of the schoolyard are areas where Conor gets bullied relentlessly by his peers. The cemetery is the setting of Conor’s recurring nightmare. At times, however, equally unwelcoming are the indoors, from the white-walled, impersonal hospital rooms and increasingly claustrophobic classrooms, to grandma’s (Sigourney Weaver) house where fragile figurines and classy couches are meant to be displayed, not touched.

But take note of Conor’s room. Warm, yellow lighting is utilized. There are a number of books sitting in shelves. Photographs of smiling faces line the walls. Conor’s various works are displayed and so we get a chance to look at what goes on in his mind. Conor’s room is a safe space from the chaos bred by circumstances with no easy solutions or resolutions.

MacDougall, increasingly impressive as the picture goes on, taps into every subtle rhythm of his character and so whatever happens to Conor—in dreams, in fantasy, in reality—is convincing every step of the way. Less daring, less ambitious casting directors might have chosen a performer who was only good in portraying one emotion. MacDougall delivers a spectrum of emotions, particularly in conveying anger and frustration from wrestling with the effects of terminal illness to the bearer’s loved ones. It would be interesting to see the kind of roles he chooses in the future.

Directed by J.A. Bayona, “A Monster Calls” makes a point about life rarely having standard heroes and villains, that oftentimes the truth is buried in the complex gray. A scene that will stick with me for a long time is when the grandmother walks into her living room and discovers that every precious belonging there is utterly destroyed by her grandson. As we do with a seemingly standard plot, we expect the scene to unfold a certain way. But it doesn’t. Instead, it overwhelms us with profound truths and humanity.

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