WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
“Because of sadness, there is cinema.” – Lav Diaz
A Monster Calls Plot SUmmary
Young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is coming to a turning point in his life. He’s a shy student with virtually no friends who spends all his free time drawing alone in his bedroom, and now he must face the fact that his mother (Felicity Jones) – his sole caretaker for the majority of his life – is losing her battle with terminal cancer. Meanwhile, every fews nights at exactly 12:07 AM, he is visited by a nearby yew tree that brings itself to life in the form of a giant monster. This tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) informs Conor that he will tell him three stories, after which Conor will have to tell him his of nightmare.
There are probably a thousand plus movies about terminal illnesses, grieving the loss of a loved one, and coming to terms with an inevitable tragic event. Few of them are likely as magical, charming, and as emotionally affecting as this one.
The plot sounds like one of fantasy and adventure – and in a way, it sort of is. It isn’t that kind of movie though — where a kid escapes his reality and goes on a journey, fighting off mythical creatures and rescuing something or someone. No, this is a film about facing the reality instead of escaping it, and more prominently perhaps, how one’s imagination and creativity can get them through the toughest times in their life. And it’s one of, if not the best of its kind.
Despite being a film filled with visual effects and computer animation (including some gorgeous watercolor sequences), the film is entirely driven by character and performance. All of them, even the minor ones, are incredible. At the center is 14-year-old Lewis MacDougall, who gives one of the finest child performances I’ve ever seen in a film. He makes the character of Conor O’Malley so instantly and easily believable. In the scenes that require moments of extreme emotional outpouring (of which there are plenty), he seems completely effortless. He is in almost every single scene in this movie, and carries the film’s weighty story and themes with the strength of an experienced ensemble. That this is only his second film as an actor is astounding. He is truly the heart and soul of this movie. I hope, sincerely, that he has a thriving career following his remarkable work here.
The supporting cast is not to be overlooked, though. Felicity Jones is excellent as Conor’s dying mother. Her performance is mostly quiet and subdued, with occasional bursts of energy in the necessary scenes. What makes her work so well is not that she acts convincingly like a cancer patient, but that she doesn’t. The first time we see her ascending down the stairs with pale, washed out skin and choppy, short hair, nonchalantly asking Conor what he wants for breakfast, we understand immediately the character’s mindset on her own situation.
Sigourney Weaver gives a masterful performance as Conor’s stone-hearted grandmother, a seemingly staunch conservative who’s just as much of mess as Connor is in dealing with her daughter’s illness.
Two scenes involving her character stand out as especially incredible:
The first is early on when she comes home to find that Conor, in a fit of rage, has broken and smashed to bits her entire living room. She wanders around the destroyed room wordlessly, with a stuck, unsure expression, but buried beneath layers or rage, and then leaves.
The second is near the end of the film, when, on the way the hospital to see her daughter, she and Connor are forced to have an intimate conversation about the future, having stopped the car for a moment to let a train pass. The scene begins with frustration and anger and ends with a comforting, tear-filled hug as rain pounds down loudly on the car’s exterior. Not only is it a perfect scene, but Weaver is perfect in it. For some reason, I feel like many have forgotten recently – or perhaps, underestimated – how gifted an actress Weaver can be. It’s true that she’s done mostly minor roles over the last few years, many of them rather insignificant in retrospect, but here, she is at her absolute best.
The tree, A.K.A. The Monster, is voiced by Liam Neeson. He speaks in a gravelly, sometimes breathy, slow voice, which is a perfect approach to character as old, wise and all-knowing as his is supposed to be. The highlight of his performance is the narration of the stories he tells. He sounds just like all our parents did when they told us stories as children, with the gravitas and passion of someone narrating a documentary. His racountuering of these stories goes perfectly with their animations too, which never feel out of place with the rest of the film, despite being so visually and narratively different than everything else.
All of these performances and characters work as a whole, really, because of J.A. Bayona’s exceptional, outstanding direction. The film goes to many places, has more than one visual style, takes on several different narrative twists, and it pretty much always works. Not once does it ever feel melodramatic, schlocky, pretentious, cheesy, or like it generally doesn’t know where it’s going. This one of the best directed films of 2016, surely.
The screenplay by Patrick Ness was adapted from his original novel of the same name. I haven’t read it, but those who have say it perfectly captures the spirit and imagination of the book. I believe them. Ness’s novel was based not on his own idea, but on an original treatment by British author Siobhan Dowd, who herself died from cancer before she could see the book written. In doing some research, I also discovered that actor Lewis MacDougall’s mother died from multiple sclerosis in 2013, when he was 10. This film’s themes are not too far from it’s heart, and perhaps that is why it’s so infinitely passionate and personal.
I haven’t gotten to the thousand-pound elephant in the room. As mentioned, this is not a literal fantasy. Of course, the giant talking yew tree is only an extension of the narrative and of Connor’s wild childish imagination. And of course, this is a film not about adventures or stories, but about how one comes face to the death of a parent. It sounds silly and far fetched, perhaps, but this one of the best films about grief that I have ever come across. I say this not because it is extremely accurate in it’s portrayal (though it is), but because it’s a film about strength. It’s a film about finding the confidence in one’s self to face, without trepidation, a horrible, unavoidable event. It’s about being able have the gut to face reality and not continually turn away and pretend like everything is okay. It’s about being able to admit that you’d rather have the band aid ripped off quickly before it deteriorates and falls off by itself. It’s about life, and death, and morality. It is wonderful and beautiful and one of the most truthfully moving things I have seen in a very, very long time.
The film’s shortcomings are so miniscule and so unaffecting that they’re almost not worth mentioning at all other than for purposes of pure objectivism:
For one, the details of the first story told by The Monster are slightly confusing. It involves many different people in many various position of government over a large period of time, and it doesn’t last long enough (only a few minutes) to appropriately keep track of who’s who and why. This makes the pacing going from the first act into the second a little – just a little – awkward and uneven.
Second, The Monster gives Conor a long speech following the film’s climax about morality and decision making that felt not only overly long, but completely unnecessary. The themes and storytelling in the film got the message across efficiently enough.
Other than those two things, this film is nearly flawless. Upon a second viewing, I might even call it a masterpiece. Even just talking about the film’s minor blemishes with the little amount of depth that I have somehow feels like a disservice.
I can personally say, in all honesty, and without a shred of embarrassment or humiliation, I was completely and totally destroyed by the emotional weight of this film. Against my own reservations, I felt my tear ducts start to well up about five minutes in, and I don’t think they really stopped until after the credits began to roll. No film in my memory has ever has that effect on me to this extent before, not even 2015’s Amy, which basically left me a blubbering mess as I drove home from the theater.
The most affecting section is when Conor’s mother, having just learned that her treatment is not working and that she is going to die soon, watches some old home videos of her and Conor as an even younger boy. The montage of clips that make up this scene set to the excellent, elegant score work by Fernando Velazquez just sent me over the edge. There are moments of this film that reduced me to nothing, and hit me in places I didn’t even think a movie could.
I was glad to learn also that I wasn’t alone in my emotional response. Watching this is in a mostly packed theatre was like being at a funeral with an open casket. There’s an extended period of silence that lasts a really long time directly after the film’s spectacular, and I mean spectacular, emotional climax, and I heard very clearly many people around me in theater sniffling and trying to muffle their sobs.
The man sitting in front of me, who brought his kid with him (I assume), was using the hood of his jacket to subtly wipe the tears from the corners of his eyes in hopes that his young son wouldn’t notice. One woman, who was sitting towards the front of the theater – and, I promise you I’m not making this up – was sobbing so hysterically and so loudly towards the end of the film that the group of people she was with had to pick her by her arms and physically remove her from the theatre in order not to disturb the other viewers. Watching A Monster Calls with an audience is a cathartic, emotionally draining experience, but in the end it is ultimately rewarding, for all the pain it puts us through. You’d have to have a heart of stone to sit through this film and not feel something.
At the moment of writing this, I’m currently lucky enough to have both of my parents still with me. But at some time in the future – hopefully, the very far, far future – I will lose them both. I won’t have the luxury of the yew tree to tell me stories and give me the strength I need to get through it, but I will have this film. Bayona and company have crafted something truly, truly special and I wish I could express my gratitude towards them personally.
I can think of no other way to end this review than to ask you, the reader, if you have not already, to please, please, please, please, please, see this film. And if you’re a parent, take your kids. And after it’s over, tell them you love them. Later in life, when the monster calls, they will thank you.
OVERALL RATING: 9/10