From the Archives: A Monster Calls review

From the Archives: A Monster Calls review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

A Monster Calls is dissimilar to the movie which is being advertised. What looks to be a fantastical, CGI-flooded children’s adventure is actually a mature look into adolescent grief. It just happens to have a giant greet monster in it … a giant tree monster voice by Liam Neeson. Don’t worry, he doesn’t play an American Oak with a Scottish accent.

But I get ahead of myself.

Grief has been a theme that linked a lot of films this past year. From Swiss Army Man to Nocturnal Animals to Arrival, the current film climate suggests that consumers are beginning to look inward – to grow tired of finger pointing and circular progress – and are seeking answers of how to process disappointment and loss. The most poetic take on grief goes to Manchester by the Sea, but the most direct take goes to A Monster Calls. While Manchester depicts the grieving process as a undulating, amorphous affliction which can rear its head at the most unexpected moments (like trying to get a steak into a freezer), A Monster Calls gets a bit more direct. In no uncertain terms it asserts that grief is a monster.

But here’s the thing, sometimes, we need a monster. Just ask Godzilla.

J.A. Bayona’s film most resembles real life in its structure. There are no acts to speak of, nor is there really much plot (another trait that makes it an atypical kid-flick). What plot does exist is simple: Conor is hitting a rough patch in his young life. Dad’s mostly out of the picture, Mom is suffering a particularly grim diagnosis, Grandma isn’t very nice, and to cap it all off, the school bully has chosen Conor as a target. By day, Conor passes the time with his imagination. He draws fantastical pictures and does his best to share a laugh with Mom while he still can.

By night, the tree outside his bedroom window comes to life and tells him stories in Liam Neeson’s voice. The only note I’ll make regarding the effects work is that it’s excellent across the board. Appropriately cartoony, but it never feels separated from the live-action elements.

The stories are brought to life in the form of lush animated sequences, each with its own unique illustrative style. The more critical amongst us will perhaps find these portions a bit too on the nose in how they relate to Conor’s circumstances, but I think that’s cheap. Not only are these scenes cleverly cryptic (the moral you initially think is being espoused is almost definitely not), but they are honest. Heck, one of them clearly advocates the notion that sometimes you just gotta break stuff. Like that song by that band.

We watch as Conor begins to apply these stories to his life with varying degrees of success, all while calling into question just what, in terms of processing grief, can really be deemed a success. When the only bar to clear is moving forward with dignity, things can get murky. Perhaps that’s what has me so in love with this film. Whether you’re young or old, life so rarely offers black and white answers. All of us are forced to bounce around and try to smile as we keep our heads above the grey muck, knowing that one day it will all end, and A Monster Calls does not shy away from the idea that there is no right answer when you’re feeling damaged or down (or mortal) – it’s okay to let your inner monster come out to play, even if just to tap into its strength.

It’s brave material, and none of it would work without prime talent to bring it all to life. Lewis MacDougall absolutely shines as Conor, and believe me when I say that there are few things that bother me more than child actors. Doubly so when they are surrounded by fantastical CGI. But here it’s pure magic. Watching MacDougall handle the material with such grace is sorta heartbreaking. All I can think is that everyone he has ever loved in his life has died. There’s just no other way that a kid so young can show exhibit such emotional depth with these themes.

But maybe it’s because he shares so much screen time with the forever charming, always evocative Felicity Jones. She’s just so. Damn. Good. ALL OF THE TIME. Yes, I am the guy who laments that her “”We rebel” line was cut from Rogue One. You say it’s cheesy, I say it’s Star Wars. Anywho, she feels like a real mom here, and watching her do her darndest to inject as much joy and understanding into her son’s life, all the while knowing she isn’t long for this world is just brutal. But it’s also lovely. Moms are awesome for this type of thing. The ability to have a near psychic connection with the illogical whims of a pre-teen is a superpower that almost every mom in the world has and Jones positively glows with it.

Her mom, played by all-time-bestest-forever Sigourney Weaver, shows a more hardened version of the same love. Weaver’s intensity is sitting on a soft base, suggesting that she was once just like her daughter, and may be forced to tap into a youthful sensitivity that is long out of practice.

Damn it. I’m crying. Guh.

Nothing a little mac n cheese won’t fix.

I wouldn’t feel right leaving this review without tossing some love to Toby Kebbell as well. His absentee Dad role is one that could have easily been a placeholder, but is instead rich with depth. He has a life beyond what we see on screen, and Kebbell takes us there.

Love also to Patrick Ness, who adapted his own novel to the screen. I have not read the book. I will.

It was tough to leave this off of my top ten list for 2016, but I eventually did so with the promise that it could very easily make the list for 2017. It’s almost guaranteed a spot at the halfway point.

This should have been schmaltzy. This could have been a phoned-in, empty throwaway kiddie flick. But this is so much more. With a year of celebrity death and political strangeness behind us, and an indefinite period of soul-searching ahead of us, A Monster Calls is absolutely essential.

A Monster Calls opens in Philly theaters today.

Official site

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