A Monster Calls

Published on July 31st, 2017

A Monster Calls

Directed by J.A. Bayona

Starring Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, and Sigourney Weaver

Reviewed by Michael Dalton

Rating: ★★★★☆

In Spanish director A.J. Bayona’s previous films The Impossible and The Orphanage, his leading characters have faced enormous challenges that leave their lives forever altered. In The Impossible, Naomi Watts, battered and torn, stumbled through a treacherous Thailand with her son in the wake of a tsunami while in The Orphanage, Belen Rueda faced restless spirits that lead her to a horrifying discovery. Now in A Monster Calls, Bayona takes us into the distressed world of a twelve year-old boy who is watching his mother slowly die from cancer.

Twelve year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) wakes every night from a nightmare where his mother, amidst an earthquake, is slowly slipping from his grasp. Conor’s reality, made up of a dying mother (Felicity Jones), a stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), an estranged father (Toby Kebbell), and a school bully (James Melville), is daunting and seemingly inescapable but then his dreamscape changes and into it comes a monster. He’s from the essence of an enormous yew tree that sits outside Conor’s window and he informs the boy he’ll tell him three stories (he arrives each night at 12.07) and when he’s done, Conor must tell him one. These stories, each examining the nature of good and evil, form parallels with various elements of Conor’s own life, tying in directly with his emotional torment.

Wikipedia terms it a dark fantasy drama, as good a description as any. Its been met with mixed reactions (people who need distinct genre clarification don’t seem to know quite what to make of it) as it looks like a child’s adventure tale yet it deals with adult themes of loss, longing, and upheaval, so make no mistake, A Monster Calls is for grownups. Adapted from Patrick Ness’s novel, the idea was conceived by the late author Siobhan Dowd (she passed away from cancer before she could write it) and the fluid animation sequences were inspired by the illustrations found in Ness’s novel. It is a visual feast, lyrical and haunting, and the title character is a knockout. Towering, with burning eyes, made of branches and voiced to great effect by Liam Neeson, he is a sight, both intimidating and empathic.

The setup is anything but conventional (it chops and changes) and there’s something magical here, not just in the stories and the monster’s presence, but in the journey of its young hero, played effectively by Lewis MacDougall. What makes Bayona’s film soar is that the battles his hero fights are universal. How well do we understand ourselves? It has been said that all truly great art is a manifestation of truth. Bayona’s film, a fine illustration of that adage, is certainly going to hit home with audiences who’ve watched a loved one slowly slip away.  The honesty buried in Ness’s narrative is confronting, demanding, and finally rewarding. This is a cathartic story of discovery I’ll never forget.