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A Monster Calls review: so good you won't care that you're crying

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J.A. Bayona's new film uses fantasy to reckon with unbearable tragedy

A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls
Courtesy of TIFF

J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls premiered last year as part of the Toronto Intentional Film Festival, where it was just one of several movies that threw us into a state of intense emotional distress. Today it opens wide in the United States, and it hasn't gotten any less heart-wrenching since that first screening. This review originally ran on September 9th, 2016.

Let’s just get this out of the way: I’m a movie crier. There’s something about walking into a darkened room, watching a story unfold, and going through a cathartic experience with a bunch of strangers that’s always been emotionally liberating for me. Sadly, it’s also something that’s been happening less and less. Modern studio filmmaking is largely designed to elicit two responses: shock and awe, and as mid-budget dramas have dried up, audiences have been left with just a handful of prestige pictures if they’re looking for something different.

So I was curious when I walked into A Monster Calls, the new film from director J.A. Bayona. His debut feature, The Orphanage, came out of left field, surprising audiences with a combination of terrifying atmosphere and emotional resonance that called to mind the Spanish-language work of Guillermo del Toro (who, not coincidentally, produced that film). His follow-up The Impossible proved his ability to scale up in terms of scope. As the story of a young boy who conjures up a monster to help him deal with his mother’s ongoing illness, A Monster Calls seemed like a logical next step for a filmmaker interested in merging the fantastic with the human.

Two hours later, when I’d finally stopped crying, I realized Bayona had made the most beautiful, moving film I’d seen all year.

Conor O’Malley (newcomer Lewis MacDougall) is a 13-year-old in the UK, who’s had to take on more than a kid his age normally would or should. He gets picked on constantly at school, he hasn’t seen his dad in years, and he’s been haunted by a wild nightmare, where the church and cemetery he can see from his bedroom window are swallowed up by the Earth in a swirl of devastation. But more importantly, it’s the situation with his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones, apparently intent on appearing in every single movie coming out this holiday season). She has cancer, and while her condition is clearly worsening, she refuses to let Conor give up hope, promising that a new treatment is always just around the corner.

Conor grows frustrated, finding solace in drawing and painting, and then one night, the line between fantasy and reality blurs. A 40-foot-tall tree monster from one of Conor’s drawings (voiced by Liam Neeson) walks up to his bedroom window, and provides him with a cryptic challenge: the creature will tell Conor three fables, and then Conor will have to tell the monster his own story.

Stunning, impressionistic sequences play like a storybook come to life

Bayona has already proven himself as a gifted visual filmmaker, but he gets a chance to really stretch his legs with the monster’s tales. They’re stories of kings and villainous queens, and wronged apothecaries seeking vengeance, and Bayona uses Conor’s drawings as the jumping-off point to visualize them. It results in stunning, impressionistic sequences that play like an elaborate storybook come to life. A Monster Calls is a beautiful, meticulously photographed film — both in its depiction of Conor’s mundane reality or the more fantastical sequences with the creature — but the treatment of the monster’s stories deepens the sense that we’re watching a fable, one where everything has to work out. The stylistic choice echoes the desperate denial that both Conor and his mom are choosing to live in.

There’s a lot going on, particularly as Conor’s father comes back into his life, and it is to screenwriter Patrick Ness’ (who also wrote the novel the film is based on) credit that the story always feels focused and streamlined. It's a great case for an author writing their own adaptation and strengthening that connection on the big screen. (The original idea for A Monster Calls came from children’s author Siobhan Dowd, who came up with the premise after being diagnosed with breast cancer. After Dowd’s death, Ness came aboard to write the novel.)

But the visuals and behind-the-scenes back story don’t matter if the character of Conor isn’t believable, and Lewis MacDougall is nothing short of astounding. He’s in nearly every scene of the movie, and the young actor is capable of reaching remarkable emotional depths, bringing Conor through anger, resignation, frustration, and indignation, while never coming off as melodramatic. He simply plays like a very young man confronted with the potential loss of the most important person in his world. It doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by a rock-solid supporting cast, particularly Sigourney Weaver, who jettisons her usual charm as Conor’s by-the-book grandmother, who is as frustrated with Conor intruding into her own life as she is with her daughter’s illness.

Lewis MacDougall is nothing short of astounding

I’m going out of my way to avoid giving away too much plot detail beyond the initial setup, but if there’s any major criticism of the film to be had, it’s that it may be a little too effective at hitting its emotional beats. At times it goes beyond just telling a moving story, and practically bathes in sentiment, morphing into a kind of cinematic catharsis porn. But if that’s a fault, in this case it can be considered a welcome one. J.A. Bayona has created an unforgettable, emotional experience with A Monster Calls, one that lets us grapple with our most basic human fears and worries, while lighting a beacon of hope that can shine through that darkness. It’s a masterful work that I can’t wait to see again — but I’m bringing Kleenex next time.