A Monster Calls (2016)

A Monster Calls (2016) Cover

I appreciate it when a movie finds a new facet of its subject matter, giving me something extra to consider. A Monster Calls does this with subtlety. The narrative and world building are the strongest elements. I also reveled in the stylized art during the fantasy sequences. The rest of the movie is just good enough to let those breathe, though there is some room to nitpick.

It can be difficult to see past your emotions when a movie pulls at your heart strings. The story follows the path of a boy who struggles with the very real difficulties of having a parent diagnosed with cancer. While watching it, the sobs in the theater were audible, and not just my own. What I liked most is that this wasn’t the whole of the story, just the jumping off part. Moreover, it’s never outright said. We get this delivered through subtext and visuals rather than stilted exposition.

But what does the movie jump off to from this point? Conor (portrayed by Lewis MacDougall) is who we experience the movie with. At age 12 he lives with his mother who is sick, and receiving treatments that make her worse and better. His estranged father lives in the United States. His grandmother inserts herself into the their life with increasing frequency. On top of that, he experiences regular and aggressive bullying at school.

After this is set up, Conor meets the monster and begins to act out at home and at school. His behavior continues to escalate as he works through is pain. Each outburst worse than the last, all without the satisfaction he is looking for. A release from the pain, the guilt, and feeling like he doesn’t belong anywhere.

This is where the story of A Monster Calls begins to grow beyond its not uncommon starting point. Every aspect of the story grows around exploring Conor’s feelings and behavior. This movie is about coping with loss from a confusing and isolated place. We follow Conor through his stages with grief as he learns to accept his circumstance and live with it.

The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, is Conor’s guide through his grief. Through a series of stories that prompt a more complicated world view, he forces Conor to admit how he feels. It’s heartbreaking stuff that got to me more than once. It’s rare to see a deconstruction of the process of grief that comes from such a personal space and it worked for me.

Parallel to the mundane, the stories of the monster are like water color paintings come to life. This fantastical element keeps you at a distance before the epilogues subvert your expectations. The 3d used to animate them has a flawed execution. Each stumbles a bit from the half and half medium of 3d used to illustrate paintings. I suspect it was a budget limitation, but it diminishes the effect.

I could go on, because I believe there is a lot of worthwhile discussion surrounding the story. Unfortunately, going further requires spoilers, so I’ll move on to the technical execution. Lewis MacDougall sells it. His performance works, and it’s the most important in the film. Felicity Jones is more than good enough for her limited screen time as the mother. Sigourney Weaver succeeds at conveying her emotion, but her accent is distracting. I couldn’t say if it is because I’m too used to her in other roles, or because it is out of place, but it broke the illusion.

Liam Neeson’s performance is quite good, even through voice over. There were some great background touches that made the use of his voice extra effective.

My only other nitpick would be that the music was forgettable. It was never bad, but it didn’t stick with me at all. I can’t think of a single moment where it took the stage and shined, or felt essential. In a movie where everything else comes together so well, being mediocre is holding the film back.

I highly recommend A Monster Calls. Though heartbreaking, this movie is going to stick with me as a beautiful exploration of loss. It may be too heavy for the audience it appeals to most, but it is definitely worth watching. Just be sure to bring tissues. For real. The feels are genuine.

Final Verdict:A layered exploration of loss that will find an audience who will remember it for a long time as a classic.