Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Review: "A Monster Calls"

It’s often said that there’s nothing in life more unfair than a parent burying a child. But a child saying goodbye to their mom or dad is also one of the most traumatic things we can go through. For most of us it happens when we’re in middle age, and in some ways it marks the final waypoint in the passage to full adulthood.

But what about when we’re still kids ourselves? “A Monster Calls” tells the harrowing story of a young British boy whose mother is dying.

No one says this outright, but we sense the final destination from the very beginning. His mother, lovingly played by Felicity Jones, puts on the bravest of faces and smiles and says everything is going to be alright, because that is what a parent who loves their kid does.

But our first instinct, to shield them from pain, is not always the best one. Conor O’Malley senses in his heart what his brain will not allow. His terror manifests itself in a fearsome vision that appears to him nightly at seven minutes past midnight: A vaguely man-shaped creature formed from the branches and leaves of a yew tree, threatening to eat him.

It says Conor can escape this fate if he listens to three true stories by the creature, and then tells one himself. But if he lies -- to the monster, and to himself -- he will be gobbled and gone.

The tree beast is the result of excellent CGI animation and the superlative voice and expressions of Liam Neeson. A mix of fury and harsh comfort, he takes role of the father figure Conor is missing. Dad, played by Toby Kebbell, is alive but living in America; emotionally, he’s even further away.

Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, and this is truly one of the great child acting performances of my lifetime. (Think Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.”) He embodies the full range of Conor’s emotions, including a lot of negative ones involving anger and resentment. Many adult performers struggle to craft a character as three-dimensional as this.

Patrick Ness wrote the screenplay based on his own book, which was inspired by the idea of another writer who died before she could bring it to fruition. J.A. Bayona, who previously directed the disaster drama “The Impossible,” directs with humility and passion.

The filmmakers shine by not trying to force the audience into this emotional box or that one, but letting them feel the full weight of conflicting feelings washing over them just as Conor does.

The monster’s three stories are related in gorgeous animation. At first they seem like simple fairy tales, involving princes, witches and the like, but as time goes on the creature reveals deeper layers of meaning. Sigourney Weaver plays Conor’s grandmother, a brittle woman who becomes the boy’s chief antagonist (other than the yew monster) during his mother’s slow march toward death.

Since I saw “A Monster Calls” more than a month ago, I’ve been struggling with the decision of whether or not it’s an appropriate film for kids. Given the parable-like story construction and “cartoon” character, I worried that people would mistake this as a “children’s movie.” Certainly it is not that.

But I do think older children might do well to see this film, to help them deal with loss or prepare them for the possibility of it. There is very grown-up stuff here, like the push-and-pull of family members who don’t want to lose their loved one, but reach a point where they just want the suffering -- theirs and ours -- to cease.

As the film year has ended and another begins, I’ve been asked to comment on whether there’s any dominant cinematic theme I’ve noticed for 2016. Generally I consider this a dangerous game, since movies are conceived and executed so far in advance of when they come out that it mostly becomes an exercise in people projecting their own hopes and fears onto works of art.

But the notions of mourning and regret are transparently there to see in many of my favorite films of the year, such as “Manchester by the Sea” and “Hell or High Water.” An exploration of that anguish that comes before death, “A Monster Calls” belongs on that list, both for its themes and its tremendous quality.

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