Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson (Voice)
Director: JA Bayona
Running Time: 128mins
Synopsis: A 12 year old boy (MacDougall) is struggling to come to terms with his mothers cancer, when he is visited by a gigantic tree monster with the voice of Liam Neeson. The monster proceeds to tell him 3 stories encompassing courage, faith and anger.
If we want to make things really simple, film can be boiled down into 3 distinct groups. You have the purely intellectual movies, such as the works of Kubrick or more recently the likes of David Fincher. Films that pride themselves on big themes, detailed dialogue and with emotions kept at a safe distance. Then you have the ones that straddle the line between intellect and emotion, ones that can tackle the big themes with smarts and a nice side line in sentimentality. Christopher Nolan manages to find a decent balance in most of his films, although they do veer slightly more towards the brain than the heart. Only yesterday I saw Arrival, which found this emotion/intellect in perfect alignment. The final one is those that are purely driven by feelings. Generally the ones that result in tears rolling down your face, or make you chuckle incessantly. Examples include the sentimental tug of a Forest Gump, or The Green Mile. The comedy genre is normally driven by the need to make you laugh, not trouble the grey matter. These sorts of films are not for the cynical, anyone coming in questioning everything does not understand the goal of the filmmakers responsible. You have to give yourself over to them, if you leave looking a mess and severely dehydrated then who cares!?
The reason I write all this is that JA Bayona’s masterful A Monster Calls is designed with one goal in mind, to leave you whimpering and bawling come the final reel. The synopsis alone will leave the most cynical of us furrowing their brow at all the sentimentality. It doesn’t start well, as it takes at least the first act for you to fully tap into the emotional vibe it’s going for. Young Connor is a lonely boy, “too young to be a boy, but not old enough to be a man” as the voice-over intones, bullied at school and dealing with the immense pain of seeing his mother battling a debilitating cancer. One night the tree that overlooks his house from the nearby cemetery comes alive and hunts Connor down in order to regale 3 stories, but the tree expects Connor to return the favour by telling a story of his own on the final night. If you can’t see where this is going then you’re not paying attention. Of course the tree’s stories will be a mirror to how Connor is feeling and will convey life lessons to the young troubled lad. Although remarkably on the nose they are extremely effective. Not to mention beautiful to watch, delivered through a mixture of gorgeous watercolour paintings and CGI. It is easy to lose yourself in these fables. It also helps to have the booming gravitas of Liam Neeson voicing said tree, it is the sort of voice you want all your tales told by.
Connor is on screen almost 100% of the time and newcomer Lewis MacDougall is a revelation. Handling complex emotions and the intensely draining tear jerking moments with a genuine and believable honesty. He is ably supported by some terrific adult performers. Felicity Jones stirs the heart as we watch her body slowly break down. You feel the immense bond between the two of them in only a few brief scenes. One scene involving the two of them watching the 1933 King Kong is filled with palpable pain, whilst also showcasing the films notion of storytelling as a means of catharsis. Sigourney Weaver features as Jones’s mother and as with most kids fables she starts off as the evil grandma, but slowly reveals hidden layers of pain and regret. As the tree helps convey to Connor, no one is truly black and white, we are complex and tricky creatures.
Themes and messages such as this are seemingly trite and simplistic to us adults, but we forget this is all told from the perspective of a confused young man who lacks that knowledge. Bayona handles these issues somewhat clumsily to start, the first story the tree tells relies far too much on laying these themes out verbally rather than letting the audience figure it out themselves. But as the stories continue and Connor begins to blend into them the film hits its stride, resulting in a number of moments of real power. This all culminates in a final act of such raw emotion and utter honesty that if tears are not pouring then I’d ask serious questions about whether you’re actually human. The cynical of you will feel the precise manipulation this film is using in order to draw a reaction, but I’d like to counter that argument with the fact that all of film is a manipulation. Any genre is tuned to deliver a set series of responses, whether emotional or intellectual, and punishing a film for fine tuning them into perfection should be applauded not frowned upon. Bayona has in fact got form in this department, his last film The Impossible is a series of emotional ups and downs also delivered by a terrific cast, not to mention his debut The Orphanage with its well judged mix of scares and affecting character revelations.
In A Monster Calls he uses every tool possible to stir your soul, from the seamless CGI work of ILM to the beautiful timeless production design (akin to the fables the Tree tells this story is set in an undetermined time period), and the melodic mournful score by Fernando Velazquez. Patrick Ness assists with an adaptation of his own story, with dialogue that veers from the subtle to the somewhat clunky, but it is always truthful.
A Monster Calls is the sort of film that will have you reaching for the phone to speak to loved ones, or joining your fellow cinemagoers in a symphony of sobbing. It is a film that will connect to us all, sure you may have been manipulated to get there but who cares when the results are this cathartic.
Verdict: Perfectly cultivated to elicit the most amount of tears possible. This is a beautifully made, superbly acted and lyrical piece of work. Avoiding mawkish sentimentality for moments of honest anguish. Prepare to weep until your eyes run dry!