I have a friend. Sam is his name. I thought of Sam often while I was watching J.A. Bayona's latest film, A Monster Calls, a magical coming-of-age masterpiece about a 12-year-old boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall, Pan), whose mother (Felicity Jones) is slowly withering away with terminal cancer despite her own repeated assurances to him of a hope he knows not to believe in.
Sam isn't 12-years-old, though I don't necessarily believe it's the age that's important in A Monster Calls. If you were to sit in a room with Sam and the conversation would shift to the passing of his father, you would immediately be enveloped by this young man's immense love and respect and true adoration for the father that he lost to cancer not so long ago.
Sam has continued living. He writes. In fact, he does so damn well. He's fiercely loyal to his mother, his friends, and to his girlfriend. But, when the subject of his father comes up you can see his entire being change and you become simultaneously grateful that he had such a warm and loving relationship with his father and saddened by the unfathomable loss he had to experience in his early 20's.
Conor is a young boy being asked to be a young man. He is being asked to deal with a life experience that one never expects to experience until later in life. Heck, I've crossed a half century with both of my parents still alive. Struggling to keep from drowning in his grief, Conor finds a rather extraordinary ally when a, well, monster appears at his bedroom window.
The monster doesn't manifest in the ways that we've come to expect in these types of films. There is no alien to be found. There are no vicious animals or gothic creatures or ghostly apparitions. This monster, in fact, is far more deeply rooted in reality. An ancient yew tree come to life from the churchyard located across from Conor's home, this monster at first glance appears almost Groot-like yet possesses glowing eyes and far reaching limbs that practically go "Clomp! Clomp! Clomp!" with each step from the churchyard to the bedroom window. Voiced by Liam Neeson, the monster somehow exudes both a grandfatherly aura and a rather intimidating presence.
Is the monster real? Is it a coping skill?
It really doesn't matter.
Faced with an increasingly weakened mother, bullying at school, an absent father (Toby Kebbell) happily away and re-married in the United States, and the incredibly frightening prospect of having to live with a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) more detached than are the limbs from the yard-hopping monster, Conor is both resistant to and compelled toward the monster.
The monster, though perhaps I should use a capital "M," is prepared to help Conor survive all that ails him...on one condition.
The Monster will return to Conor's home on three separate nights. On each night, the Monster will tell Conor a story. However, on the fourth night that the Monster returns it will be Conor's turn to tell the Monster a story.
No lies. No exaggerations.
The stories that unfold are, indeed, nothing short of extraordinary. Constructed utilizing a watercolor-styled animation technique that is beautiful to behold and immersive to experience. Indeed, A Monster Calls is a film best experienced in the movie theater. Adapted for the screen by Patrick Ness based upon his own book, A Monster Calls was, in fact, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, herself dealing with cancer at the time and not surviving long enough to see the story come to life. It's that kind of truth and that kind of authenticity that helps A Monster Calls become a nearly perfect coming-of-age story that both tells an intimate story and universal truths. It is why I could simultaneously feel enveloped in Conor's world, while reflecting upon the losses of a friend and his father and my own losses of a spouse and a child.
A Monster Calls, in many ways, is about that which roots us to our realities and how, if we allow other roots to be planted, other realities can be planted in our lives even if that which permanently impacts us is never completely gone or grieved away or tossed aside. Unlike certain moments in Bayona's powerful yet occasionally drippingly manipulative The Impossible, A Monster Calls wisely avoids overwrought emotions and histrionic expressions. Conor's grief is so real and so incredibly primal that one barely needs words to understand his experiences.
It is to be expected, perhaps, that the ensemble cast Bayona has assembled would be capable of adding emotional depth and honesty to such an extraordinary screenplay. Liam Neeson's vocal work is as we would expect, both warm and compassionate and terse and challenging. Felicity Jones takes what could have so easily been a one-note role and turns it into a symphony of relational complexity and parental turmoil. It is a parent's worst nightmare to die before their child has grown and we feel deeply her desire to both be honest with and protect Conor. Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell are solid in supporting turns.
But, this Lewis MacDougall. Oh my. Having only one film credit prior to this one, the underwhelming Pan, MacDougall is nothing short of extraordinary here. MacDougall captures all of Kubler-Ross's stages of grief, sometimes doing so within the same scene. He masterfully captures the destruction of his "happily ever after" fairytale while fully embodying the innocence and wonder of a twelve-year-old. Without question, MacDougall gives one of the year's finest leading performances and certainly gives one of the best performances by a child actor in recent memory.
When it comes to the loss of a loved one, friend or family or whatever, in some strange way we all become a 12-year-old. We all become filled with the innocence of a child and the guttural rage of a monster within. If we're lucky, I suppose, all that we are draws toward us a monster, kindly or not so kindly, who goes "Clomp! Clomp! Clomp!" and turns us back toward our truths and our light and our hope.
Perfectly weaving together darkness and light, A Monster Calls is, perhaps, a not so subtle reminder that sometimes it is the fiercest monster that has come to save us.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic