By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Some of the better films this year have dealt with the human challenge of grief. Manchester By the Sea, Arrival, and Jackie have adult characters coping with grief in their lives, but A Monster Calls is different in that its protagonist is young boy who must must face the inevitability of his terminally-ill mother’s demise. Death and loss must be even more painful and difficult for a young child very close to his loving mother, and even more so for an introvert who has trouble socializing and connecting with others his age. Conor O’Malley, the protagonist of A Monster Calls is one such character with this problem and one who has an interesting way of facing his harsh reality.
Conor (Lewis McDougall) is a quiet and shy pre-teen who mostly keeps to himself in school and loves escaping reality through his imagination and drawings. Conor tends to avoid reality, as not only is his mother (Felicity Jones) dying from cancer, but he must constantly face bullying at school. As Conor becomes more distraught, angry and uncertain about what to do, a magical tree “monster” (Liam Neeson) begins visiting him at night to tell him some stories which may or may not relate to Conor’s situations. In addition to the stories, the monster also helps him cope with his emotions in various ways.
With a screenplay by Patrick Ness (based on his novel), director J.A. Bayona has crafted a truly magical and emotional movie that should touch the hearts of anyone who has experienced the pain and grief of losing a loved one. Because the material is pretty dark and heavy, parents should use some serious discretion when considering whether or not the PG-13-rated film is appropriate for their children. The movie does offer young teens a lovely and poignant glimpse into the realities of death and dying, and the normal feelings that come with it. Ness’s story, which was inspired by an original idea by Siobhan Dowd who came up with the concept prior to dying of cancer, is a brilliant and visionary masterpiece. Bayona and his crew bring so much skill and artistry to the presentation of the story, that the movie comes across like a storybook-come-to-life.
The film features some beautiful and extraordinary performances by the cast including Felicity Jones who delivers a tender and exquisite turn as a nearly broken mother clinging to any miracle she can grasp just for the opportunity to be there for her child. Sigourney Weaver offers solid work as Conor’s maternal grandmother, a more strict and uptight lady who will eventually become Conor’s legal guardian. Lewis McDougall shows much skill, range and maturity as an actor in the role of Conor. This movie, which is a tremendous showcase for his talent and abilities, will surely to lead to more work and deservedly so. Liam Neeson does a wonderful and amazing job voicing the tree monster. He has the perfect timbre and power behind his voice to make the monster appropriately menacing, but can tune it down when the character needs to be more reassuring. Neeson, like Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones, has one of those incredible voices which brings much life, energy, and tangibility to his characters.
Now I know it probably sounds like this movie is utterly depressing; however, the beauty of its artistry and the impressive writing by Ness makes this a film that no one should ever miss during a lifetime. As I stated before, parents should carefully consider the appropriate ages for their children to watch this film, but when they feel the time is right, they should definitely share this experience with them. Dying and the loss of loved ones are inevitable facts of life that everyone must face. Children must learn these difficult truths eventually. Perhaps this beautiful film can soften the blow a little bit when it does really happen. As for adults, this movie is simply a moving reminder that we all must cope with this real human problem in our own unique and personal ways.