A MONSTER CALLS Review

Cancer movies suck. Let's go ahead and put it out there-having to deal with a movie, a piece of entertainment, that reminds us of just how debilitating and ruthless a disease cancer can be not to mention the lack of control we are able to extend over it is not exactly something we like to be reminded of in our attempts at escapism. Putting a plot in your film that concerns the disease dealing in abnormal cells can be cruel and if nothing else seem a blatant attempt to play on the real life emotions so many viewers will recognize from dealing with cancer themselves or through that of a loved one. It's a bastard of a disease and despite the fact it gets no different a representation in A Monster Calls, the latest from director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible), it remains the focus of this sorrowful fairy tale serving as the catalyst for all that our young protagonist experiences. What is most fascinating about how A Monster Calls deals with this potentially tired trope of a disease though, is that it never allows the disease to take center stage. This is not a story about the person suffering from cancer and it isn't a movie about how cancer will define the lives of those it will leave in its wake, but more it is about confronting the disease, dealing with it in an honest fashion, and having the gall to stare it down. What I have always found disheartening about Bayona's films is that they consistently tell powerful and affecting stories that are executed in glorious visual fashion, but never tend to stay with the viewer in any real impactful manner. Rather, Bayona is a director who calculates in order to elicit emotion as his pieces are all in their place and his aesthetic is of just as much value as the way in which he conveys his necessary themes, but no emotion from his films ever seems to grow inherently out of these carefully considered factors that are coming together to tell this particular story. Maybe it's that he considers such elements too long to the point there is no opportunity for organic emotion to grow in between, but with A Monster Calls there are serious strides made. More than any other feature the director has led prior A Monster Calls latches onto its themes and is able to convey with conviction this truth that is hard for our protagonist to swallow as well as the agony and adventure he must go through in order to finally admit that truth to himself.

Mum (Felicity Jones) comforts her son Conor (Lewis MacDougall) despite the fact she's the one dying from cancer.
Photo by Quim Vives - © 2016 - Focus Features
Beginning with splashes of water color as if to immediately steep us in the creativity of not just the story, but those of the talents our main characters will possess there is an immediate sense of just how much of an outlet this film will feel like. Not only in terms of creativity, but in somewhere to go when you need consoling or somewhere to go when you need to simply scream to let off steam. A Monster Calls carries that familiar feeling of a life that has been lived in despite our protagonist having only lived a limited number of years on earth. Conor O'Malley (newcomer Lewis MacDougall) is by all accounts a rather average thirteen year-old boy who seems to do well enough in school without being overly interested while his real passion lies in the drawings and doodles he creates on the sides of his notebooks. This outlet in the arts proves to be more therapeutic than anything else as he is routinely picked on after school by a group of boys too insecure in their own skin to evaluate their own lives and so they cover their fears and shortcomings by picking on the admittedly gangly Conor. Conor comes home from being beaten up, washes his scars, tidies up the house, checks on his mother, and retreats to his room where he draws, eats whatever dinner he makes for himself, and eventually falls asleep. Naturally, this routine of sorts tells us that Conor isn't exactly living an exciting or enviable existence. We see that his mother (Felicity Jones) is sick with cancer and isn't able to do much of anything with only her mother and Conor's grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) coming check on the two of them from time to time. Conor doesn't get along with his strict, cold grandmother, his father (Toby Kebbell) now lives in the States with his new family, and so Conor is alone. This begins to change though, when, at 12:07 am every night Conor is awakened by the presence of a very Groot-like monster who springs to life from the yew tree that overlooks the old church and graveyard Conor can see from his bedroom window. You see, when Conor does get some sleep he inevitably has the same dream over and over. This titular monster (played sternly, but sympathetically by Liam Neeson) claims this dream has summoned him and that, as a result, he will tell Conor three stories and then Conor will have to tell him his own story-or the reasons for which he keeps having this reoccurring dream-reasons that Conor may not yet be ready or willing to admit to himself.

It is in the three stories in which the monster tells that we come to learn the big ideas A Monster Calls would like to discuss. Humans are complicated and "happily ever after" is more often than not saved for fairy tales whereas life often ends up as "messily ever after". Sound intriguing? As said before, cancer movies don't typically fit the bill for those going to the movies to strictly be entertained, but what is true of A Monster Calls, movies in the same vein, and many of the more serious awards contenders released around this time of year is this idea that movies don't have to strictly exist for the purposes of distraction, but can be just as nourishing as they are entertaining. Nourishing by means of giving us insight into the ways other people view and experience life. By illustrating that if we have the opportunity to go and sit down in a theater with two hours to spare to take in something such as A Monster Calls then we might have a certain amount of privilege as compared to the isolated Conor. Nourishing by means of being able to grow our human experience without having to deal with such a tragedy personally; allowing the viewer to understand the emotional and personal ramifications of such a situation so as our inherent capacity for sympathy grows bigger and more understanding. Movies can teach us just as much as they want to tell us and while films like A Monster Calls may not necessarily be looked to for the type of "feel-good escapism" that most summer blockbusters highlight its reason for existing is still more than valid-if not more admirable. What serves as the most enriching aspects of Bayona's latest effort though, is that of the gray fog it likes to paint over the idea of what it means to be human-good or bad. The film reiterates to the young Conor time and time again that most human beings fall somewhere in the middle without being all good or all bad. And while it spells out this aspect of the monsters stories a little too much as the film nears its finale it still makes some fine enough points and includes enough interesting caveats within these ideas that there is plenty to keep your mind contemplating if not coming up with your own facets on the same themes. Matching with this the fine performances from a game cast and Bayona's keen visual sense and the result is a perfectly enlightening visual pleasure that while effective may not be as affecting as it intends to be.

Conor goes to some pretty inventive lengths to help him work through his grief in A Monster Calls.
© 2015 Focus Features
That said, and going back to the interesting caveats within the main ideas, what did indeed come to be most affecting for this viewer in particular was the idea of what it must feel like to be a parent whose life directly dictates how terrible your child's life experiences will be as they enter adulthood. Not by choice of course, but by default of being sick everything bad about Jones' characters life directly influences that of the quality of Conor's. The sad and rather dreadful state in which Jones' mother character has been living for God knows how long when the movie begins has done nothing but pull down the life experience of her son despite the fact she can do nothing about it and would never be blamed or held accountable for such things. Still, how terrible she must feel that due to her illness her son also has to suffer is a striking insight. It is here that Conor comes face to face with the dark truth of his reoccurring dream-this truth he can't bear to admit to himself, but that his wildly imaginative self won't allow him to repress for much longer. The idea of the story, it should be said, is a beautiful one. The way in which it conveys both this brutal yet delicate depiction of having to deal with not only the loss of a loved one, but the needing to be able to let go of that loved one so that both are better off is undoubtedly a difficult line to walk, but by framing it in such a way that Conor understands this, but can't admit it to himself except without the help of this monster is both inventive and ultimately satisfying if not as emotionally devastating as it needs to be to render the film a winner on all fronts. This goes back to that idea that Bayona can craft familiar tales in interesting ways, can craft powerful imagery that conveys complex emotions, and is a master of the technical aspects given the visual scope of what we see here spans a handful of different mediums with a countless number of techniques being utilized to bring such a vision together, but that so much planning is needed to accomplish as much that the weight of the emotional impression the film needs to leave is left largely to the actors (Weaver's performance is especially moving). All things considered, the final product turns out to be a good balance of all factors and a beauty to look at, but never as resonant so as to be groundbreaking. That said, the climax of A Monster Calls is the closest the director has come to bringing each of those strands together seamlessly as the final beat of the film truly illustrates all the film has been building to. A culmination that pays out the dividends the movie has been saving up via the metaphorical stories unspooled by the titular monster.