Playing Catch-Up: A Monster Calls (dir by J.A. Bayona)


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As our regular readers are undoubtedly aware, I was born in Texas and I grew up all over the Southwest.  I don’t believe in trigger warning and quite frankly, I lose respect for anyone who I hear whining about having to have one.  That’s the way we are down here.  If you can’t handle potentially being upset by something or someone, that’s you’re own damn problem.

That being said, I do feel like I should give everyone a heads up about A Monster Calls.  Don’t consider this to be a warning because a warning suggests that something bad is going to happen and A Monster Calls is actually a very good movie and one that I highly recommend.  But I do think I should say that I sobbed almost all the way through A Monster Calls and I wasn’t alone.  When I saw this movie on Sunday, there wasn’t a dry eye in the Alamo Drafthouse.

That’s just the type of film it is.  It’s a movie that deals very sincerely and very forthrightly with what it means to lose someone who you love.  It’s a coming-of-age story that deals with fear, loss, guilt, and those moments when — even while dealing with unbelievable pain and sadness — we can still find happiness in the moments that we have and in the imagination that all people — especially young people — possess.

Technically, A Monster Calls is a fantasy though it actually deals with very real emotions and events.  Conor O’Malley (Lewis McDougall) is a shy and introverted 13 year-old who is haunted by nightmares, one in particular.  His parents are divorced.  His father (Toby Kebbell) lives in America and is barely a presence in Conor’s life.  His mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones, giving an amazing performance), gave up her own artistic ambitions when she became pregnant.  Now, she’s sick and every day, Conor is told that his mother is starting yet another new treatment because she’s “not responding as expected” to the previous treatment.

With Lizzie growing more and more ill, Conor finds himself living with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).  To Conor, his grandmother appears to be overly strict and unemotional but, as the film makes clear, she’s not.  If she seems strict, it’s because she knows that she will soon have to take over as Conor’s guardian.  If she seems unemotional, it’s because she’s trying to stay strong for both her daughter and her grandson.

Meanwhile, at school, Conor finds himself targeted by a strange bully named Harry (James Melville).  The scenes with Harry are some of the oddest in the film.  At times, Harry seems to look at the perpetually miserable-looking Conor with almost an expression of empathy and you wonder if he feels some sort of guilt over what he’s doing.  But whenever Harry approaches Conor, a viscous sadism emerges.  Though Harry always seems to be the one who is staring, he continually demands to know why Conor is always looking at him.  When another student tries to hit Conor, Harry announces that only Harry is allowed to hit Conor.

And then there’s the Monster.  At night, the Monster visits Conor.  A gigantic, humanoid tree, the Monster speaks in the voice of Liam Neeson and he alternates between being threatening and being almost paternalistic.  When Conor gets angry, the Monster encourages him to destroy things.  When Conor gets sad, the Monster taunts him for thinking that his sadness is somehow different from everyone else’s sadness.  The Monster is frightening but, at the same time, he seems to be the only thing in Conor’s life that he can depend on.  The Monster’s words may be harsh but there’s also something oddly comforting in their harshness.  It helps that he sounds like Liam Neeson.

The Monster tells Conor three stories, all of which are full of ambiguity and end with uncertain lessons.  The Monster tells Conor that, after he finishes the third story, Conor will be required to tell him about his greatest nightmare.  Conor finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the Monster but, as quickly becomes clear, his main fear is talking about his nightmare.

A Monster Calls is a beautifully done story about dealing with loss, one that will make you cry but, at the same time, will leave you feeling almost grateful for those tears.  The Monster is a truly spectacular creation and Liam Neeson does a perfect job voicing him.  What makes A Monster Calls so special is the way that director J. A. Bayona deftly balances Conor’s apocalyptic encounters with the Monster with the small, every day details of real life.

It makes for a powerful film.

Just make sure you’re ready to shed some tears.

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4 responses to “Playing Catch-Up: A Monster Calls (dir by J.A. Bayona)

  1. A film that definitely got to me. Not since The Fountain has a film reminded me of the loved ones I’ve lost both when just starting to become a man. Then recently as an adult realizing losing a parent reminding me of that child inside losing their protector and realizing to appreciate those we have in our lives because one never knows when they’ll leave us.

    A Monster Calls is definitely in my top ten, but I may take some time before I go watch it again.

    Liked by 1 person

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