The subjects of coping with grief and coming to terms with inevitable loss are some of life’s most complex. Director J.A. Bayona understands this with his vision of “A Monster Calls,” an adaptation of the Patrick Ness novel of the same name.
The film is simultaneously straightforward and allegorical, with so much of its brains relying on the audience to keep up with its multitude of metaphors. It still holds a certain amount of weight if you fall a bit behind, but reveling in its intricacies, now matter how forced they may seem, ultimately leads to a powerful message of accepting the direst situations life may throw at us.
Newcomer Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, whose mom, portrayed powerfully by Felicity Jones, is sick and not getting much better, despite trying seemingly every treatment available.
Conor is aware of her debilitating situation, but continually shuts himself off to it. What young child wants to think about having to live life without their mom? Instead he draws away his frustrations late at night, a distraction that proves to be a bit too effective.
That is, until the titular monster – a wooden CGI beast sporting Liam Neeson’s devilishly sly voice – pays Conor a visit, and begins to preach his parables.
These moments, although they are what make “A Monster Calls” unique and provide its billing, are hit-or-miss. Rest assured, there is a vital importance the monster’s origin and appearance other than being a cultural knockoff of Marvel’s Groot character, as there is in the stories he tells Conor.
They are meant to instill some wisdom, although the messages seem a bit forced. Thankfully, some wonderful, unexpectedly macabre animation makes it more bearable. The sharp and analytical minds that pick up on the monster’s motives for telling these particular stories are the ones who will get the most out of “A Monster Calls.”
Instead, the film is at its strongest and most accessible in Conor’s interactions with other humans, including his father who now lives in America, and his grandmother that he has trouble connecting with. Not only is MacDougall stronger in these scenes, but the interactions may lead us to think back to moments in our lives where we may not have gotten along with a family member in a time when it was so important to be emotionally in sync with one another.
A highlight of the film comes during the monsters’ third, and most unexpected, visit. If we haven’t up to this point, it finally becomes clear what the beast represents, as well as his timeliness of visiting Conor. It is an impactful scene, and a rare one for Bayona when all aspects of his film come together perfectly as Conor finally begins to let out what he’s been keeping pent up inside.
And that’s only the prologue to his complete transformation in the film’s final act, one which makes us ponder the monster inside us all, and the power of releasing it when life swings its biggest punches. It’s difficult to tell who “A Monster Calls” is best suited for; its protagonist relates more to our youthful, innocent selves while the film is certainly more dark and mature than some may expect.
But the discussion that it is sure to spark between moviegoers of any age after leaving the multiplex is an important one, affirming the impact of a film that might make you question your perspective of life, even with its tough-to-absorb allegories.
“A Monster Calls” is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images
Starring: Lewis McDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell
Directed by J.A. Bayona