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In Theaters: A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

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A MONSTER CALLS
(US/Spain - 2016)

Directed by J.A. Bayona. Written by Patrick Ness. Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Toby Kebbell, Geraldine Chaplin, James Melville, Ben Moor, Dominic Boyle, Oliver Steer. (PG-13, 108 mins)

Acclaimed Spanish filmmaker and Guillermo del Toro protege J.A. Bayona (THE ORPHANAGE, THE IMPOSSIBLE) crafts his first genuine masterpiece with A MONSTER CALLS, adapted by Patrick Ness from his 2011 novel. The book came from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, who planned to write it herself but only got as far as outlining the project before succumbing to terminal breast cancer in 2007, a battle that inspired the story. Dowd's editor passed her notes on to Ness, who agreed to write the novel. As a director, Bayona seems more akin to classic-era Spielberg than del Toro (Bayona is currently at work on the next JURASSIC WORLD movie, due in summer 2018), demonstrating a gift for getting natural performances out of young and inexperienced actors. He coaxes a star-making from young Lewis MacDougall (PAN) as Conor O'Malley, a lonely 12-year-old boy in a small British town trying to cope with the slow decline of his terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones). Treatment after treatment doesn't work, and Conor has no one to turn to--his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is cold and stand-offish, and his father (Toby Kebbell) split several years ago and has since started a new family in Los Angeles ("You could come for Christmas and meet your sister," he tells Conor, who snaps "Half-sister"). He's bullied on a daily basis at school by Harry (James Melville) and spends his time sketching and drawing, a passion he inherited from his mother, who wanted to go to art school but put it on the backburner when she became pregnant with him. Conor is plagued by recurring nightmares in which he's clinging to his mother as she dangles over a bottomless hole that's opened up, always followed at 12:07 am by an ancient yew tree in the cemetery behind their home coming to life.





Voiced and motion-captured by Liam Neeson, the giant, fire-breathing tree monster is in Conor's imagination but mentors him in dealing with his problems--with the bullies at school, with his grandmother, the resentment he feels toward his father, and his refusal to accept that his mother is near death. The monster tells Conor three stories that have little to do with one another and whose points are initially lost on him. In them, nothing is black and white. People who are presumed evil are actually not and vice versa and there are no clear answers for anything. Conor is, as the tree monster says, "A boy, too old to be a child and too young to be a man." He's faced with thoughts that he can't process. He wants his mother to recover but is angry with her when the last-ditch attempt at treatment doesn't work. He's happy to see his visiting father, but it doesn't take long before he realizes that he's not the priority when Dad declines his request to move with him to L.A. ("There's just no room," Dad says). Things take a devastating turn when Mom is readmitted to the hospital and Conor is forced to stay with Grandma and crosses a line that may irreparably damage any chance at establishing a positive relationship with her. The moral of the tree monster's stories all parallel plot developments in the film, and in doing so, the tree monster is preparing Conor for the inevitable truth he has to face: that his mother is going to die and there's nothing he can do to stop it.


For anyone who's lost a parent or a close family member to a long illness, A MONSTER CALLS may dig up emotions both devastating and cathartic. You'll recognize every thought that runs through Conor's head: his wish that treatment is a success and everything will get back to normal, his anger when that doesn't happen, his wish that the suffering would just end, a sentiment that he misconstrues as wishing she'd die, which causes him extreme guilt ("You don't want her to die," the tree monster reassures, adding "But you want the pain to end. For her and for you"). It's hard to discuss a lot of what happens in A MONSTER CALLS without giving away too much, but it's a powerful and deeply moving film that addresses a difficult subject in a mature and thoughtful way. I wouldn't be at all surprised if psychologists and families find it to be a therapeutic tool in the future for helping children cope with the pending loss of a terminally ill parent. It's a film about loss and grief that handles real life issues in a blunt but sensitive fashion. It isn't afraid to show its characters in a negative light because that's how life happens. There are moments where you'll intensely dislike Conor, no matter how much you empathize with his situation, making A MONSTER CALLS a special effects-heavy fantasy with much going on under the surface--"monster" has numerous meanings here--pulling no punches and unafraid to take risks. It's depressing, heartbreaking, comforting, and hopeful in equal measure, and is thus far my pick for 2016's best film.


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