Grief is a bold theme to take on in any work of art. Not only is it a touchy subject, but it’s also difficult to tell stories about it that don’t devolve into a series of blubbery Lifetime movie clichés. Based on the novel by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls is an imaginative film that explores grief through a socially isolated boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) coping with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal cancer. He starts having visions of a tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) that comes to life in the form of a monster and tells him seemingly nonsensical fantasy stories.
If that all sounds depressing, that’s because it is. That’s not a criticism, though. In fact, A Monster Calls loses its footing most when it tries to compensate with lighter plot points and themes. Whether the problem comes from the source material or the screenplay (also written by Ness), the story doesn’t trust the audience to accept it as being confined to an interesting metaphor.
Without going into spoilers, the film tries to give its fantastical elements a basis in reality, resulting in a forced, sloppy ending after one of the most emotional climaxes of the year. That isn’t to say that the journey isn’t worth it, though. The expositional scenes about Conor’s school life, as well as his relationship with his uptight grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), take their time.
Once the monster visits begin, however, A Monster Calls begins to shine, and it doesn’t stop for the majority of its running time. Profound themes reveal themselves as Conor tries to wrap his head around the meaning of the stories the monster is telling him. The stories themselves are told through fascinating 2D animations that are nothing short of eye candy. Oscar Faura’s cinematography is notable as well, with occasional breathtaking shots sprinkled throughout the film. Director J.A. Bayona’s (The Orphanage, The Impossible) artistic and interesting choices throughout the movie make it clear that he’s a noteworthy filmmaker after three features.
He deftly directs his actors through the difficult material, as all the performances are spot-on. After ending the year with Inferno and Rogue One, Felicity Jones reminds audiences that she can do a lot more than run around in action blockbusters. Her portrayal of a woman who knows she’s dying is earnest and admirable, and her love for Conor is nearly tangible. In his first major role, Lewis MacDougall carries the film beautifully, never overplaying Conor’s increasingly volatile nature.
The climax hinges on his character finally admitting how he feels, and MacDougall unleashes it with wisdom beyond his years. A Monster Calls had the potential to be one of the very best films of the year. While a few things hold it back, it remains a very well-done and interesting work that’s worthy of the many tears that have and will be shed over it.