Trailers for A Monster Calls led me to believe that I was about to watch a standard kids' movie with a nice visual flair. The ingredients were all there for a film that I would appreciate and then forget soon after: based on a children's fantasy novel, an imaginary friend, a bully to overcome, hinted at family problems to mix some drama in for parents.
I am ecstatic to say- I vastly underestimated it. Rarely has a movie that I expected so little from affected me so deeply. Visionary director J. A. Bayona's A Monster Calls is a masterful ode to the complexity of the human experience.
Bayona previously directed the acclaimed Spanish horror The Orphanage and watery disaster movie The Impossible, but with his latest feature he's switching up genres (and title articles) for a fantasy drama. Thankfully none of his renowned artfulness was lost in the transition: A Monster Calls is a "kids' movie" only as far as it includes kids in its mission to touch the human soul universally.
This mission is successful thanks to collaboration with screenwriter Patrick Ness, who wrote the children's book of the same name and sticks around to translate its poignant legacy to screen. Ness wrote the novel after his friend and fellow author Siobhan Dowd originated the idea but died of cancer before she could finish it. The book's history is laden with the passing on of stories and looming shadow of cancer- its narrative follows suit.
A Monster Calls is the tale of a young boy who dreams up an imaginary friend to deal with loneliness and fear over his mother's cancer. This friend is a giant, talking tree that tells the boy stories about the difficulties and unanswerable questions of life so he may better grasp his own situation.
Written by a man who understands all this personally and directed by an expert in visualizing emotion. Ready those tear ducts.
A couple marks of the movie's triumph: it's one of my 5 favorite movies of 2016, and I was weeping uncontrollably for the last thirty minutes straight. Several reasons for such a glowing recommendation: its dedication to theme over plot, breathtaking art direction, main performances, and admirable realness. I'll touch on each briefly before leaving you to see it as soon as possible. Other than one scene that spells out the movie's themes too blatantly and a child performance that suggests room to grow, the film left me with nothing but material to praise.
A Monster Calls is about a boy whose mother has cancer, but that's not what it's about. A lesser film would shamelessly milk this trauma and be an offensively saccharine tearjerker, but Bayona and Ness are smarter. The film instead thematically digs its nails into the harsh realities and murky moralities of human life. The stories that the monster tells Conor are poetic revelations of the grey areas we are doomed to explore, emotionally enrapturing us with recognizable trials so that the surface level anguish is all the more involving. Then the film earns rivers of tears.
It also earns our wonderment. The art direction is full stop gorgeous. The effects that bring the imposing tree monster to life are impressive, but A Monster Calls has more intricate tricks up its sleeve. Each separate story calls for a different visual style: watercolors and stop-motion illustrate the movie's themes with delicate care, lulling us into the arms of a film that wants to touch our hearts up close.
Aiding this connection are Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver, playing Conor's mother and grandmother respectively. Jones' love for her son is tangible. Weaver demonstrates incredible understanding of A Monster Calls' message, filling out the fears and passions of a struggling mother to such a degree that she anchors some of the film's most powerful moments. Liam Neeson's voice and motion capture work as the monster is reassuring and resonant.
This all adds up to an artistic whirlwind of authenticity. A Monster Calls is an emotionally honest tour de force that builds something beautiful out of life's hardships.