Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Everyone Copes: "A Monster Calls" a profound, cathartic fable for the ages

A Monster Calls (2016)
108 min., rated PG-13.

Unique and profound, cathartic and transcendent, “A Monster Calls” deftly marries another story about grief and loss with a fantastical angle from the vision of adolescence. Author Patrick Ness adapts his own novel and director J.A. Bayona (2012’s “The Impossible”) beautifully translates to the screen this young adult fairy tale, approaching mature themes such as the fragility of life, the knowledge of a loved one’s mortality, and the necessity of anger after loss. Not every film deserves to be described as “poetic,” a word that has always been bandied about, but “A Monster Calls” reaps that distinction. This is one for the ages.

No longer a boy but not yet a man, 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is experiencing a lot at his age. He is bullied at school. His parents are separated, Dad (Toby Kebbell) having moved to America and visiting Conor from time to time. Worst of all, he is about to lose the best thing in his life: his beloved Mum (Felicity Jones), who’s dying of terminal cancer. One late night at his desk at 12:07 in the morning—this specific time later becomes a pattern—Conor is visited outside his window by an intimidating grumble coming from across the countryside near an old church and graveyard. It is actually a sprawling yew tree that pulls its roots from the ground and morphs into a monster (voiced and performance-captured by Liam Neeson). The monster promises Conor four more visits with three tales that will later conclude with Conor having to confront his own nightmare. As his mother’s condition worsens and his relationship with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) grows even more distant, Conor finds himself isolated and not ready to meet the demands of the monster.

It isn’t often that films revolving around young protagonists face themes that are usually intended for adults. 2015’s “Inside Out” proved that animated films can be as mature, if not more, than anything live-action, and already this year, “Pete’s Dragon” was an emotionally stirring fable of grief, as orphan Pete was brought up by a mythical dragon in the forest after losing his parents in a car accident. “A Monster Calls” roots its own territory not only across the pond but in a different idea of grief. As much as he is in pain and full of sadness in preparing for the death of his mother, Conor is furious at everything around him, and understandably so. As can be assumed, a lot is demanded of 14-year-old newcomer Lewis MacDougall emotionally. He is excellent as Conor, giving the full weight to a young boy’s fear and fury of letting go of his mother.

Voiced and acted with motion capture by Liam Neeson, the yew tree monster has been magnificently rendered. The purpose of the monster could easily be misconstrued at the outset, convincing those to expect him to merely get revenge on Conor’s bullies or somehow save his mother. Instead, the monster acts as a coping method for the pre-teen boy to face the unthinkable. In other necessary roles, Felicity Jones is painfully heartbreaking as Conor’s mum, evoking the last strands of life and spirit she has left, and Sigourney Weaver brings more layers than are initially expected as the grandmother.

With a combination of majestic imagination and tender emotional heft, director J.A. Bayona tells a complete story that serves as a deeply felt arc for Conor and deepens the further it goes. The visual effects are in the service of a story rather than mere top-of-the-line spectacle that might overwhelm the story, and the stories the monster tells Conor about a queen, a prince, an old pharmacist and a healing tree are strikingly visualized as watercolor paintings. Tough-minded and unsentimental but warm without becoming treacly, “A Monster Calls” packs a wallop and earns every emotion. Whether or not it is commercially viable for families will be up for debate, but this is a special film that should be vital viewing for everyone, young and old.


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