A Monster Calls
A young boy seeks the help of a magical tree monster to help heal his terminally ill mother in J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls.
This is a difficult film to talk about as the plot description I put in the intro paragraph is actually pretty far from what this film is about so I’m just going to go ahead and discuss the meat of the film. Mild spoilers might follow. At its core this is a film about coping with loss and the denial that is often associated with that.
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is young and that ends up being very important to the story. Youth brings a lot of limitations in situations like this and the fact that he is unable to do anything to help his mother deal with the cancer is symbolic of that. Conor is entirely helpless here as there’s nothing he can do but get swept up in whatever the adults want to do. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) as complete control over the situation and, loud as he protests, Conor can do nothing about it. He gets no support from his absentee father (Toby Kebbell) who is caught up with his new family.
Lewis MacDougall delivers a brilliant performance that is well beyond his years. He carries the film flawlessly by delivering a complex and layered character who can project wide eyed innocence or tortured pain depending on the demands of the story. The sense of helplessness he feels is expertly conveyed and it’s easy to root for him throughout.
Sigourney Weaver manages to deliver a layered character with a realistic arc despite being very much a background player in the narrative. Everything she does is either to oppose or assist Conor as the story demands it but her transition as she accepts the inevitability of losing her daughter feels believable.
Felicity Jones as Conor’s mother Lizzie also fills a background role but it isn’t an insignificant one. The way she bounces off Lewis MacDougall makes them feel like a close mother and son while Jones’ portrayal of Lizzie losing her battle with cancer is subdued and powerful. Their connection is a strong one and it feels painful when it’s ripped away which is very important since the entire narrative hangs on investing in Conor’s loss.
Children have a unique ability to let their imaginations consume them and that’s exactly what Conor does. He conjures a wise and chaotic monster (Liam Neeson) to fight his battles and solve his problems for him. Of course it isn’t as simple as that since the monster isn’t real but it is able to represent the practicalities of learning to adjust to what his life is becoming. It’s a very powerful metaphor and the film shows this with the strong visuals associated with the monster.
Liam Neeson’s vocal performance is perfect. His voice is dripping in wisdom, compassion and a little bit of menace. The point of the monster is that he’s impossibly ancient so has seen everything and that’s exactly what comes across. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate voice to come out of the monster’s wooden mouth.
It’s a beautiful film to look at and completely relies on the imagination device to deliver some excellent visuals. The monster tells Conor three tales to help him deal with what is happening in his life and these are visualised through excellent animation. The design of the monster is also really unique and an example of beautifully executed visual effects work. Each of the stories have a purpose that isn’t immediately obvious but their role in Conor’s life slowly becomes apparent. The way they transition from fairytale parable to practical advice shows the growth in Conor’s understanding.
The film struggles slightly in how it handles Conor’s father. Toby Kebbell does a fine job but he doesn’t appear as often as he could so he doesn’t slot into the story quite as naturally as the other characters do. In some ways this makes sense as Conor doesn’t really know his father beyond what he has been told but the film doesn’t really build a picture of what sort of man he is. There are hints that he is conflicted between what he feels he should do and what he reasonably can given his resources but it doesn’t go as far as I would have liked. It’s a very small problem but it is there.
A moving and fascinating story that deals with the concept of loss and denial in really insteresing ways. Lewis MacDougall carries the film wonderfully and Conor is a really complex character who realistically struggles with his upcoming loss as well as the limitations of being a child. Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones are in the background of this story but are completely signiificant and Liam Neeson delivers an astounding vocal performance as the imaginary monster. The film is beautiful to look at and the metaphors all start to make sense towards the end. It’s a stunning start to my 2017 film reviews and one that will resonate for a long time to come.