Directed by J. A. Bayona Starring Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, Toby Kennelly, Sigourney Weaver Film Review by Chris Olson
There have been a few films in recent years that have offered bold takes on the coming-of-age story, giving the genre a more gritty and sometimes brutal insight into the tumultuous transition from child to adult. A movie like Neds (2010) is a good example of a British film which captured this tone, with harrowing violence and sharp pathos surrounding its central character like broken glass. A Monster Calls, based on the novel by Patrick Ness (who also writes the screenplay here) and the original idea by Siobhan Dowd, does not go as far as Neds in terms of traumatic violence and repercussions, but does deliver a dark atmosphere in a similar way, offering up a pubescent character dealing with roiling rage and heartbreaking tragedy.
Set in a sleepy town, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) has a particularly sour existence. His mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering with a terminal illness that is ravaging her body before Conor's eyes, whilst his dour grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) fails to be very comforting, and his wayward father (Toby Kebbell) always has one foot ready to leave. On top of this, Conor faces daily bullying and beatings from other boys in his class. His isolation is broken when the impressive tree that resides in a field near his house, comes to life (voiced by Liam Neeson) and regales him with life lessons through stories.
Few could ignore the emotional pull of A Monster Calls, which also dares to divide its audience by combining darker themes of childhood, with a strong fantasy element. For some audiences, this combination may well be uncomfortable, with the heavy pathos failing to assimilate with the heavy CG spectacle. That being said, the emotional drama between Conor and his mum is undeniably palpable. Jones is frankly perfect in this role, delivering a belieavable and striking turn that steals every scene she is in. Remove the fantasy elements and there is still a gut-wrenching story here that is hugely moving.
The Monster provides an interesting element to the film. Rather than any schmaltzy clichés about being true to oneself or finding strength through friendship, the deep-voiced tree offers an unorthodox perspective on Conor's struggles, essentially revealing the nasty truth that the world is full of evils and that you will not know how to cope with them all. This is further developed in a spectacular speech from Jones, where she basically says it's okay to be hella mad and break stuff when you are upset!...I'm paraphrasing there.
Watch the A Monster Calls Movie Trailer above.
This adult approach to the difficulties of youth is refreshing and delivered by director J. A. Bayona with a good degree of honesty. This, in turn, reveals the only slight misstep of A Monster Calls, which is the animation and fantasy elements, awkwardly injected during the Monster's narratives. These crudely drawn depictions of tales with special parallels for Conor's life are a dramatic tonal change which may jolt the viewer straight out of the affecting drama. Especially given that the film moves starkly away from them in the latter stages of the movie. There was an obvious significance for Conor, given his predilection for drawing, but the sequences felt at odds with the atmosphere that was being deftly created, with a moody score and brilliant performances.
For a worthwhile film on the coming-of-age through traumatic circumstances tale, A Monster Calls stands toe to toe with the other giants of the genre, however, the slight concessions to childishness prevent it from looming over as a spectre to be reckoned with.