12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall), dealing with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) illness, a less-than-sympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and bullying classmates, finds a most unlikely ally when a Monster appears at his bedroom window. Ancient, wild, and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth. Toby Kebbell plays Conor’s father, and Liam Neeson stars in performance-capture and voiceover as the nocturnally visiting Monster of the title.
For a 12-year-old child, the world should be a vast open space to explore, make new bonds, make mistakes but learn from those experiences, and above all else, be fun. But what do you do when the world around you needs you to be more than a 12 year old. The cards that you have been dealt with makes the world need you to deal with issues and situations that even an adult finds difficult to contemplate and resolve. “A Monster Calls” is a visually heart-breaking coming-of-age story about a boy whose life is crumbling before his eyes only to find solace in the form of a Monster.
It is tough being 12-year-old Conor O’Malley. His single mother has terminal cancer and he needs to make sure he can take care of her as much as possible. He goes to school like all other children but has no friends, and gets beaten and bullied every day by a few of his classmates. His father lives in the US with his new family but visits whenever he can. He doesn’t get along with his cold and strict grandmother and does not want to live with her when the inevitable happens. To top it off, he has the same nightmare every night, vivid and terrifying. He is alone. He is isolated. There is no one who can help him to take the pain away. Until one night, at 12:07am, the big yew tree that he watches in the distance outside of his window suddenly starts cracking apart to reveal a gigantic tree man who comes to his house, grabs him out of his bedroom, and tells him that he will be coming every day to tell Conor three true stories. After the stories are told, Conor will need to tell the Monster his own story: the truth behind the nightmares he has been having.
Spanish film director J.A.Bayona brings his visual flair and storytelling to this film like he did in “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible”. It’s extremely dark and gothic, echoing Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” and of course the works of Tim Burton. But like the films of those two directors, we’re watching a fairy tale play out right in front of our eyes. The three stories that the Monster tells to Conor are told in gorgeous water colour animation; visual paintings that you see in your favourite children’s books come to life. I’m glad Bayona went that route as the stories are key to help drive the underlying metaphor that helps Conor accept his ultimate fate, and ensure we remember that this is still a film aimed for everyone, even if it is tackling very adult themes.
A Monster Calls has a great cast: Felicity Jones has knocked another performance out of the park here (after Rogue One just under a month ago) playing the terminally ill mother trying to stay strong in front of Conor, even if she is withering away slowly in front of his eyes. Toby Kebbell does great as the absent father who’s struggling himself trying to take care of his new family over the pond. As much as Sigourney Weaver is a great actress, she was the main flaw in this movie. Not because she acted terribly here (she does great as the strict grandmother) but she turns in a very weird English accent which I found difficult to adjust to throughout the movie, distracting the flow of the story. Ultimately the film belongs to the shoulders of the two main characters, Conor and the Monster, and they are both incredible.
The visuals of the Monster are stunning: terrifying to look at with red-hot burning eyes and a force to be reckoned with, but deep down is gentle and caring. I hope the visuals department gets the recognition it deserves come Oscars nominations. The Monster is the courage and bravery that Conor so desperately is missing in his life. The one to give him the nudge to take the next step. Kudos for casting the best voice in Hollywood and ultimate bad-ass Liam Neeson to do the voice work. Lewis MacDougall is the heart of the film and a future star in the making. The journey we take with Conor is every bit as harsh and heart-breaking for us as it is for him. MacDougall can switch from being strong when required, to being fragile and isolated by the click of a finger. He has to tackle the themes of losing a mother, the separation of his parents, bullying, having no friends, and also question his sanity when seeing the Monster. Not many adult actors can say they’ve tackled all these topics at once in a single film.
I can’t say I’ve seen many coming-of-age films in recent times as beautiful as A Monster Calls. A heart-breaking, tear jerker of a film that uses fantastical visuals to tell a fairy tale about a little boy (with a star-turning performance by Lewis MacDougall) struggling to find his inner courage, and accepting the fate he has been dealt. Go watch it on the big screen before it goes.