The theater experience has changed a lot. To compete with television, films considered "theatrical" had damned well better be a good, tight ride and A Monster Calls fits that category. This wonderful, visceral film is a theater-experience level event, a reason why the old idea of film as personal experience lives on. The reactions of the audience reflected a dynamic relationship with A Monster Calls that was unmistakable.
Liam Neeson speaks as the Monster in a booming voice alternately deeply distorted and paternally kind, precisely synched with the detailed CGI-eyes of the monster, a large and historically important Yew tree. The tree/monster is prominently involved in the nightmares of Conor, a clearly traumatized 12 year old acting way too reflexively adult-ish. No one that has ever parented a 12 year old will miss Conor's 'tude permeating his every action.
Conor, played by Lewis MacDougal rings true at that cranky edge of life all must face: the newness and intensity of losing faith in things taken for granted. Conor's mother, played by Felicity Jones, is dying of cancer. Grandma, played by Sigourney Weaver, issues stern orders in monstrous violation of the code of denial between Conor and his mother and her nuanced transition illustrating the dual nature of all people is a powerful, resonant theme in this film. Conor, true to being 12 combined with determined denial is suffering his cognitive dissonance right before our eyes in carefully lit and beautifully nuanced visuals.
The Monster appears pursuant to the nightmare in the opening scene. The metaphor at the heart of this poignant film is the tree that bends itself to look young Conor in the eye: Truth that will not be silenced meets cranky 12 year old who's had it with everyone's bullshit. The depth really got tested with the conflict between the monster and irritated young Conor. I kept expecting a gutter ball, but the film stayed in its lane, veering close to the ditch-of-cliche but deftly staying true. I was buying it. I tried to tear it up, I really did. This film hooked that room, gaffed it and had it in the boat and then the credits rolled.
Through a series of dream-stories that illustrate duality and how perspective changes everything, Conor confronts the great existential question that has no name, that one we all deny even exists. Deep down inside, how he feels and what he must do both hurt for different reasons, and here again is that "experience" thing with this wonderful movie. We've all been there.
Director J.A. Bayona has deftly woven imagery and metaphor to tell a story only great film can do properly. The stretch of plausibility between dream-state and awake never snaps.
Adults wary of a children's film can rest assured that while there may be children present in the audience, this isn't so much a coming of age film or another sad mommy-is-dying boo-hoo Hollywood trope about a sad but ultimately victorious transition to happy-land. Nor is it a maudlin tear-jerker pressing reliably resonant cultural buttons in an increasingly desensitized audience. We all watched Carl shoot his mother, so...top that one.
It's been a long time since I viewed a film with 80 or 90 people and not been annoyed. When the film was silent, no one made a sound. No one got up for the restroom, there wasn't any whispering. When Conor stood over the destruction of his Grandmother's attachment to the past, several people spoke out things like "Oh, no!" and "Now you're gonna get it!" — not in an annoying way, but as seamlessly part of this film as anything on the screen. The last 20 minutes, everyone sat in stunned silence. I've never heard a theater so quiet ever.
A Monster Calls demands the viewer buy into the tightly framed, scripted dialogue and dream-world presented to Conor. Some viewers might not buy the contrived premise and appearance, attention to costume and facial expression. Some might see the world of A Monster Calls as overly emotional, CGI-eye-candy with a zen-lite message about coming-of-age.
Films like this one and Edward Scissorhands charm us and reflect something of who we are. The nature and function of "the monsters" in both films are connected at the hip. As Frankenstein mirrored Prometheus and the terrible duality of enlightenment and truth, A Monster Calls portrays a clever modern twist to that Greek Myth disguised as a children's film. The scene-sky on which the stars of this film are painted belie it's depth.
Like Burton's masterpiece of alternate reality, A Monster Calls demands a great deal of the viewer, but my group-experience at the screening of this film was verified by my Magic-8-Ball: "Is this film really that good?"
"It is decidedly so."
A Monster Calls
4.25 out of 5 stars
PG-13. Directed by J.A. Bayona.
Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones