Make no mistake—2016 has been a year of grief and mourning. Whether it be awards-friendly fare such as Manchester by the Sea and Jackie, the death of so many beloved artists (Bowie, Cohen, Prince, now George Michael) or the all-too-public demise of decency in political discourse, there has been much for our culture to collectively mull over these past 12 months.
Enter A Monster Calls. Directed by Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona from a script by Patrick Ness (based on his low fantasy novel of the same name), the film tells the story of Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a bright, artistically minded preteen living in a dreary small town in England. When not being tormented by school bullies, Conor must come home to the vision of his young, cancer-stricken mother (Felicity Jones) deteriorating before his eyes.
One night, at the height of despair and loneliness, Conor is visited by a mammoth tree-like monster (Liam Neeson) who proceeds to cryptically set up the film’s structure. He will tell Conor three stories over three nights; after these stories are done, however, Conor must tell a story of his own. Though the film does not explicitly address the exact nature of The Monster (is it a nightmare, a fantasy apparition, a byproduct of the boy’s grief-addled mind?), director Bayona proceeds to visually meld Conor’s overcast, bleak “reality” with his more fantastical interactions with The Monster, thus blurring the line between the boy’s exterior and interior.
A Monster Calls is something akin to a raw nerve, highlighting not only a period of great emotional stress but the point at which a boy’s childhood is forcibly shattered in favor of the complicated nuances of an adult world. In weaving together his three stories for Conor involving knights, witches and apothecaries (all rendered via striking, painterly animation that brings to mind the celebrated “Deathly Hallows” sequence from the penultimate Harry Potter installment), The Monster undercuts the preconceived rules of traditional fantasy lore, namely that good and evil are easily distinguishable and that tragedy strikes with some underlying sense of purpose.
Serving as both a guardian angel and a visual representation of grief, The Monster suitably serves dual roles as frightful nightmare fodder and paternal grandfather figure. Neeson walks this tightrope beautifully, summoning a vocal performance that effortlessly oscillates between the menace inherent in his post-Taken action roles and the more sonorous, comforting tones reminiscent of the messianic Aslan from the Narnia series.
Key to the film’s foundation, however, is the central relationship between MacDougall’s Conor and Jones’ mother character. In the wake of two major studio roles (Inferno and Rogue One) wherein her talents were somewhat underutilized, A Monster Calls allows Jones to once again demonstrate why she’s one of today’s best young actors. Sure, playing a character with cancer is the quickest shortcut to an audience’s heart, but Jones imbues the role with so much humanity and warmth that you are right there with Conor in fearing her departure. Relative newcomer MacDougall, meanwhile, hits his role out of the park, conveying Conor’s deep well of pain and anger without leaning on overly melodramatic histrionics.
Rounding out the cast is Sigourney Weaver as Conor’s grandmother, a seemingly cold woman who has surrounded herself with the mementos of her late husband, and Toby Kebbell as Conor’s father, who—in the years since his separation from the mother—set up a new life and family for himself in America. In a lesser film, these two could very well have simply existed as one-note quasi-villains, especially in the case of the father. Instead, the story peels back the layers to find two dimensionalized individuals struggling with the best way to approach such a tragic, no-win situation.
Ultimately, audiences’ reception to A Monster Calls will vary depending upon their capacity for cinematic manipulation. From the music (or lack thereof) to the haunting visuals to the meticulously framed shots of Jones’ and MacDougall’s expressive faces, everything here seems destined to wrench as many tears from viewers’ eyes as possible. For me, at least, it worked like gangbusters.
Much like The Orphanage, A Monster Calls melds genre with a hard-hitting emotional narrative about loss. Whereas The Orphanage used the prism of horror cinema to Trojan Horse a heartbreaking tale of mother and child, A Monster Calls expertly employs its genre elements as a further extension of its themes. Incidentally, Ness’ source material originated from an idea provided him by the late British author Siobhan Dowd, who was—in the time prior to her premature death from cancer in 2007— developing a book to help children deal with loss. Viewed through these parameters, the film aligns itself with the likes of Spike Jonze’s heartbreaking adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are in that it’s an experience built to invoke large, abstract ideas rather than cohere into a precise narrative. In this way, A Monster Calls is messy in the way that grief itself is messy.
If the film has any notable failings, it’s the depiction of Conor’s schoolyard bullies. In such an otherwise complex portrait of grief and the people in its orbit, the level of sadism on display seems utterly cartoonish in comparison. Given how much of the film is told from Conor’s perspective, one halfway expects their actions to be part of the boy’s distorted reality but, no, these kids are just that terrible. And while there’s certainly a case to be made for the cruelty of children, here it exists purely as a superfluous means of creating sympathy for Conor—as if, in the wake of everything else, we needed anything more.
Overall, despite its rough subject matter, A Monster Calls is more than just the cinematic version of a cathartic scream. Rather, it’s a film that holds your hand while never sugarcoating the difficult ideas at its core. It’s also a story about the power of stories—both in how they provide escape as well as a means of coping. In the end, the film argues, stories can serve not only to help put together the pieces of a damaged life but to eulogize the memories of those we’ve lost.
Director: J.A. Bayona
Writer: Patrick Ness
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson, Toby Kebbell
Release Date: Dec. 23, 2016
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.