Editor’s Note: A Monster Calls is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
The late Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross never could have imagined that the grief theory she pioneered in her 1969 book Death and Dying could be embodied by a fifty-foot tall, ambulatory tree-creature (don’t call him Groot) voiced by a somber, gravelly voiced Liam Neeson in J.A. Bayona’s (The Impossible, The Orphanage) adaptation of Patrick Ness’ 2011 Carnegie and Greenaway Medal-winning children’s novel A Monster Calls. She probably couldn’t have imagined the combination of craft, skill, and art that went into turning the titular “monster” from a hand-drawn sketch into a fully realized, CGI creation. Actually, he’s not a monster at all. He’s a supernatural grief counselor sent to help A Monster Calls’ central character, Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a twelve-year-old boy, navigate the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). It’s a difficult, at times unpredictable process filled with setbacks, switchbacks, and growth-oriented self-realizations about life, death, and everything in between.
J.A. Bayona has already proven himself a skilled craftsman at eliciting fully convincing performances from non-adult actors and delivering impressively complex set pieces, and now with A Monster Calls, the near perfect melding of the two.
When we first meet Conor O’Malley, he’s facing the most significant loss of his young life: His mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), has begun the long fade. She’s dying, but still holds out hope that the next treatment, each one more experimental than the last, will save her life and allow her to raise her son into adulthood. At school, Conor faces the withering gaze of an older boy, a bully who uses every opportunity to taunt and beat Conor. Whether because of his introspective nature or the bully’s efforts, Conor remains alone, isolated, friendless at school, with only the occasional remark from a well-meaning teacher to stir him from the grief-flecked numbness that repeatedly threatens to smother him. The unwanted arrival of his strict, authoritarian grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), doesn’t bode well for his future or his mother’s. Conor’s father (Toby Kebell) lives in America with a new family, essentially leaving Conor to his own imaginative devices.
Driven by a complex of emotions he can barely understand or process, Conor’s imagination conjures up the titular monster, a giant tree-creature who could have stepped off the page of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers but who serves an entirely different purpose, to tell Conor three stories on three nights, each one with a specific meaning or lesson to impart. On the fourth night, Conor must share a story of his own with the monster. Refusal isn’t an option. As A Monster Calls segues from the vicissitudes of Conor’s daily life at school, at home, and inevitably in the hospital when Lizzie’s health takes a turn for the terminal, to the monster’s nightly visits (always at the same time) and the monster’s stories, a pattern begins to emerge. The monster isn’t telling stories because he likes to be heard, but because the barely concealed truths embedded in each story will help Conor traverse the emotionally wrenching stages of grief. The monster doesn’t so much hold Conor’s hands throughout the process as actually hold him in his hand, especially when Conor resists the life lessons behind the stories (e.g., prince/evil queen, preacher/apothecary, an invisible man), ultimately culminating with his own (a recurring nightmare involving an abyss and his mother).
Visually, the missteps are few and far between where A Monster Calls is concerned.
As necessary as those stories might be to Conor’s coming-of-age journey, they suffer from a problem not uncommon to children’s books or YA novels: They’re often over obvious, their meaning not left to the audience’s imagination, but called out, underlined, and highlighted by a key character. Subtext becomes text, leaving subtlety and nuance, interpretation and ambiguity (and interpretative ambiguity) as an unexpected casualty. Telling moviegoers what to think and how to think might make a film like A Monster Calls more accessible, but it also robs the premise of depth and meaning and the audience a step removed, partially disengaged when they should be fully engaged in Conor’s journey toward self-realization and reconciliation with his mother and grandmother.
Visually, however, the missteps are few and far between where A Monster Calls is concerned. J.A. Bayona has already proven himself a skilled craftsman at eliciting fully convincing performances from non-adult actors (The Orphanage), delivering impressively complex set pieces (The Impossible), and now with A Monster Calls, the near perfect melding of the two. MacDougall gives a pantheon-worthy performance as Conor, delivering every emotional beat with a sensitivity and deftness well beyond his years. That’s both a testament to MacDougall’s talent and Bayona’s ability as a director to draw grounded, naturalistic performances from his actors. The titular monster delivers the requisite wonder and awe from a creature that exists only in fantasy, not reality.
A Monster Calls, J.A. Bayona's latest, features a near-perfect melding of both fully convincing, naturalistic performances from non-adult actors and impressively complex set pieces.