By: Muneeb Arshid
Very few fairy tales/fantasy films do ever work these days, but boy does A Monster Calls ever hit that sweet spot by being able to connect real life tough issues through the use of the genre.
Many directors are starting to steer themselves away from the fantasy world for many reasons, the main being that these sorts of films tend to involve very heavy CG work, which means that production budgets can be quite hefty. A budget, fantasy film, also has a negative connotation of being shoddy in its make, which can also put off production teams. However, director J.A. Bayona, who last directed The Impossible, a film that was very much liked by yours truly and was a film that really showed Bayona’s strength in adapting an emotional story. The subject matter of the two films might be completely different, but both films share the fact that Bayona exploits every emotion from his audience (most notably the one that occurs when someone cuts onions by you).
The story of A Monster Calls is centred around a pre-teen boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall in a stand-out performance) who is having a difficult time grasping with the fact that his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), is about to die of cancer. He tries to become as self-sufficient as possible but has trouble each night coping with the fact that he is losing his mother. Conor begins to have nightmares every night, a nightmare which never seems to come to its end, as he always wakes in the middle of the dream. One night, a tree monster (voiced and motion captured by Liam Neeson) visits Conor at exactly 12:07 am and tells him that he will share three stories with Conor in exchange for Conor’s true story (eluding to Conor’s nightmare). Conor initially believing this to be some way that could save his mother, agrees. And thus follows the journey that Conor must struggle with coming to terms with all the personal issues that are ongoing.
Through the use of the three stories and Conor finally confronting The Monster and his own demons by telling his story, Conor realizes that his wish to save his mother was misleading him away from the real, hard truth that he needed to actually save himself because his mother’s death was inevitable. For Conor, he thinks that saving his mother will save him from other issues that are going on like his overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), whom he has to go live with while Lizzie is in the hospital as well as bullies at school who continue to physically abuse him.
The harsh reality for Conor is that even though he is trying his hardest to save his mother, he realizes that her going is inevitable and that he has to accept it. The film makes Conor realize through these stories instead of just playing them in real time. This is one of the great successes of this film, that it is able to convey so much raw emotion by telling stories and hitting emotional pinpoints to a degree where everyone has experienced what Conor experiences in the film. Not that his mother is dying per say, but the fact that he tries to save someone from a foregone conclusion but ultimately has to accept the fact that inevitability is a thing and sometimes it’s better to “accept and move on”.
Bayona could have easily made a film telling the story about a kid losing his mother and having to face other issues at school. That actually is a film that we’ve seen a lot. However, the use of fantastical elements in the film, allow something unique to be built here. The entire way, even though you know that the monster is not “real”, you never feel that the film is “fairy tale-y” but rather you connect with Conor at that raw emotional level because of his interactions with The Monster. And that is a true indication of how well the film is constructed from its plot, to the characters, and to the fantasy elements in the film.
Director Bayona’s vision on telling this story is what keeps the film intact. The way it is constructed to tell this wonderful yet emotional story is key in ensuring that the audience is engaged in a somewhat “slower” film. Because the story and the characters are so engaging, the ever so wonderful cinematography by Óscar Faura is slightly underwhelming, or that it’s not exactly the first thing that you notice. However, pay attention to it, and it will be a great visual experience depicting a very rainy and stormy England is quite a beautiful way.
The problem with this genre and with this type of film is that not as many people will go and watch this film, which is quite the shame. The stigma around low-budget fantasy, fairy tales is already quite prevalent and when we do get a quality film like A Monster Calls, box office figures don’t end up helping and movie-goers are once again subject to low quality, high budget action flicks that people have seen countless times.
Bring a box of tissues as you have to be quite heartless to not get at least emotional during the final 30 minutes of the film. There will be people cutting onions all around the theatre, mark my words!
We, at TFL, present A Monster Calls, with a very strong grade of A- (9.0/10)