The power of parable and grim realities of grieving take centre stage in A Monster Calls, a potent mash of gritty coming of age drama and gothic fantasy that once again displays the strong visual and storytelling talents of director J.A. Bayona.
Parables are an efficient and effective way in delivering universal truths. The Bible, particularly the teaching of Jesus, showcase parable in a dynamic and powerful way. Valuable lessons can be learned through them, lessons which can help form new perspective and even provide healing. A Monster Calls, the latest film from Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage), based on the children’s fantasy novel of the same name by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the screenplay), brilliantly demonstrates the power of parables within its grim yet tender story of youth besieged by the darkening shadow of death.
Its story focuses on Conan O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) a 12 year old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying from cancer. Forced to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), separated from his father (Toby Kebbell), and mercilessly bullied at school, Connor is now also plagued by a recurring nightmare that asks a vital question, but provides no answer. With no guidance nor comfort for his plight, Connor receives both in the surprising form of a large humanoid yew tree like monster (Liam Neeson), who dispenses three “true” tales that will help Connor with his struggles. But in the end Connor himself will have to tell his “truth” to the monster in order to find peace.
A blend of stellar visual effects, motion capture and voice work from Liam Neeson, the monster itself is a brilliantly conceived, crafted and performed character of its kind, part prophet and part guardian angel who teaches and guides Connor through a mind field of emotions that can explode any time.
Much sophistication is found in this coming of age story that deals with heavy, heavy issues: death, bullying, divorce… they are all handled with a stern, yet heartfelt frankness from Bayona who no matter the subject – haunted house in The Orphanage, natural disaster in The Impossible – finds the light within the darkness.
Performances are terrific all around. Young MacDougall brilliantly conveys the angst, anger and sadness that Connor goes through; Jones is heartbreaking as the mother dealing with her mortality; and Sigourney Weaver delivers her best performance in years as the grandmother who puts on a stern front to hide the pain of her daughter slipping away and grandson drowning in grief.
If A Monster Calls sounds dark, that’s because it can be. Yet from that darkness is much in the way of light, of hope, of creativity, and of maturity. Themes of death and grief have been tackled quite a bit this past cinematic year. A Monster Calls is one of the best and creative films to deal with such issues.