Grief is easily the hardest emotion any of us will ever contend with as human beings. Whether its family or friends or loved ones, or even our non-human companions, having to say goodbye to someone (or something) you love can be just as hard to cope with as the harrowing grieving process that can follow such a loss. Confronting your grief is the theme at the core of J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, the adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel (Ness also penned the screenplay) that takes a brutally honest approach to handling death and all the ugly truths that come with such misfortune, but easily maintains the emotional centeredness needed for a story overwrought with such sadness.
Bayona isn’t interested in just manipulating our sympathies for the sake of watching us bawl our eyes out by the time the finale rolls around (although that was definitely the result when I viewed it). No, there’s a somewhat therapeutic aspect to watching A Monster Calls (or at least there was for me) that makes it more about letting go on many different levels beyond just saying goodbye to someone you love, all while humanizing our own agonies and feelings that we aren’t always ready to admit to having, or are even willing to share with others.
In A Monster Calls, Lewis MacDougall stars as Conor, a 12-year-old living in the UK who is quickly learning just how cruel and unfair life can be, even though he hasn’t hit his teenager years yet. His mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), is battling an aggressive form of cancer that has left everyone with very little hope that she’ll ever recover. He’s constantly being bullied at school, and after his mom takes a turn for the worse, Conor is forced to live with his stodgy grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he regularly butts heads.
Just one of those issues can be a tall order for any kid to contend with, but all three is enough to push Conor into a place of anger, despair, and desperation, which all manifest themselves in an oversized yew tree that comes to life (voiced by Liam Neeson). “The Monster” explains to the boy that he’ll visit him three times to share three different stories, and then on the fourth visit, Conor must tell the tree his real truth (which, of course, involves his mother’s ever worsening condition), or suffer The Monster’s fiery wrath.
There’s a lot about A Monster Calls that stands out—engaging performances, amazing character and production designs, and a strong score, just to name a few—but the biggest aspect I took away from the whole experience was just how matter-of-fact Ness’ story is towards the idea of letting go of what you love, and how it is a necessary process we all must deal with at some point in our lives. For Conor, it just happens to be when he’s very young, which means the boy must find strength and resilience deep within himself, because there’s no way to stop the inevitability surrounding his mother’s failing health. There are no magic fixes here, no last-minute saves: Conor’s mother is dying and by way of The Monster, Bayona and Ness demonstrate that even when it seems the hardest, we must all be ready to say goodbye, even if we don’t want to.
Earlier, I mentioned that A Monster Calls has a brutal honesty that not only hit me out of nowhere, but also was oddly refreshing as well. We hear in the film’s third act Conor’s gut-wrenching truth, which is right about the time when I started fumbling around in my purse for a Kleenex, as the way the story humanizes Conor’s rather ugly declaration never alienates us from his character. Whether or not we’ve all felt the way he feels in this story, we can certainly relate to his pain. As Conor, the young MacDougall makes for a very empathetic and engaging central figure to follow on this agonizingly blunt journey that Bayona takes us on in A Monster Calls.
The Monster itself is a stunning achievement in CG and practical effects (the latter was handled by Oscar-winning special effects artist David Martí, who also worked on Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth), and Neeson proves that he’s just as enigmatic with his voice as he is when he’s acting on-screen. Weaver also puts in strong work in A Monster Calls, but I only really warmed up to her once Bayona shifted our perspective of her character (away from how Conor viewed her), and we finally got a sense of her own suffering while she watches her daughter growing closer to death.
While A Monster Calls may not have left me an emotional heap the way Arrival did just a few months ago (it took me 15 minutes just to be able to pull myself together after that one), Bayona’s latest cinematic adventure definitely stomped a big hole right in the middle of my heart with a finale as heartbreaking as it is hopeful. It definitely works on various emotional levels, and I’ll wholly admit that it helped me confront some of my own feelings on losses I’ve endured in my life so far. It may not be the heartwarming tale that you might expect, but it’s the film’s abrupt and sometimes confrontational nature towards a difficult subject matter that makes A Monster Calls such a standout effort.
Movie Score: 4/5