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Haunted Sideshow

Dustin Putman

A Monster Calls  (2016)
3 Stars
Directed by J.A. Bayona.
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, James Melville, Oliver Steer, Dominic Boyle, Geraldine Chaplin, Ben Moor, Jennifer Lim; voice of Liam Neeson.
2016 – 108 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic content and some scary images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman for, October 18, 2016.
He arrives at the window of 12-year-old Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) at exactly 12:07 a.m., a cemetery yew tree come to life. The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) is not here to terrorize or eat Conor, but claims to have been summoned by the boy. Over the course of several nights, always just after midnight, he will tell Conor three challenging yet human morality tales. In exchange, Conor will ultimately tell his own story. He does not yet know what said story is, but soon will. A family drama rich in fantastical metaphor, Patrick Ness' lyrical, heartrending 2011 bestseller "A Monster Calls" (based on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd) receives an equally sensitive filmic treatment from director J.A. Bayona (2012's "The Impossible"). Advertising and marketing will no doubt skew young—from afar, it appears to be strikingly similar to another recent literary adaptation about the friendship between a child and a giant, 2016's Steven Spielberg-helmed "The BFG"—but this picture is tougher and deeper than that one, sharing more similarities with a fellow whimsically tinged film about coming-of-age and bereavement, 2007's beautifully poignant "Bridge to Terabithia."

Conor's life stands at a crossroad he is not yet willing to accept. His beloved single mom Elizabeth (Felicity Jones) is battling a tough cancer diagnosis and a series of exhausting chemotherapy treatments. Visits from his dad (Toby Kebbell), living across the pond in America with a new wife and family, are few and far between. He has never emotionally connected with his grandma (Sigourney Weaver), but must go to stay with her while his mother is in the hospital. At school, there is little respite as class bully Harry (James Melville) ramps up his taunts and abuse. When The Monster appears, creeping down from the graveyard overlooking Conor's bedroom window, the boy's fright quickly turns to curiosity, and then warmth. He is slow to admit it, but this creature is his one source of comfort as he faces the most difficult time of his still-young existence.

J.A. Bayona isn't a stranger to humane fables about loss and grief—2007's "The Orphanage" is every bit as moving as it is creepy—and "A Monster Calls" feels like a natural extension to the filmmaker's thematic predilections. Adapting his own novel, Patrick Ness stays mostly faithful to his narrative even if there are a few questionable deviations. The most notable is the deletion of a pivotal character from the book, Conor's empathetic classmate Lily. Without her, the film isolates our protagonist to an almost unforgiving degree, and must also lose one of the novel's most powerful—and hopeful—climactic scenes. Judged solely on its own respective merits, this alluringly unusual cinematic conglomeration of slice-of-life grace notes and supernatural genre elements nevertheless packs a punch.

Lewis MacDougall (2015's "Pan") is quite a find as Conor, understanding with maturity and expressiveness the dramatic complexities of his role. Acting opposite a computer-generated creation poses its own obvious challenges, and he makes the viewer believe their relationship. It is his work opposite Felicity Jones (2014's "The Theory of Everything"), as gravely ill mother Elizabeth, and Sigourney Weaver (2015's "Chappie"), as his somewhat cold grandma, that gives the proceedings its most ample potency. Jones is devastating as a young woman who keeps hope alive as long as she can while struggling to come to terms with having to part with her son. Weaver, meanwhile, exquisitely embodies the aching struggle of a mother facing the loss of her own daughter, her buttoned-up façade cracking as she and Conor must finally come together to find common ground. Finally, Liam Neeson (2015's "Taken 3") could not be better cast, his deep, comforting, magisterial voice tailor-made for the part of The Monster.

"A Monster Calls" smoothly, eloquently traverses heavy material while giving the images a crisp, foreboding visual panache. Eugenio Caballero's production design and Oscar Faura's cinematography deliciously balance between gritty realism and gothic wonder, while the involving, unorthodox stories The Monster weaves burst with imagination and a fairy tale-like watercolor aesthetic. Ace technical credits are never used for the sake of showing off, but are in full service to the very real universality of a story about the harsh yet unavoidable process of life. The final scenes are particularly touching and true, capturing the anguish, confusion, remorse, and eventual solace of a boy who is no longer a child, but not yet an adult. Even in his mourning, his ties to the past, and to his mother, live on.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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