Movie Review: ‘A MONSTER CALLS’ for honesty, offers valuable lessons


Bill Graham // Film Critic

Rated PG-13, 108 minutes.
Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones and Toby Kebbell

Impatience is the hallmark of youth. How often have we heard the phrase, “Are we there yet,” repeated by the young? That’s why nearly every emotion for children are often extreme versions of what adults often feel. Loss, anger and frustration are all dealt with from a young boy’s perspective in A MONSTER CALLS – the latest film by visionary director J. A. Bayona (THE IMPOSSIBLE, the upcoming JURASSIC WORLD sequel) – and we can see deft touches that pepper the film and make it worthy of discussion long after leaving the cinema. Amidst the sadness there is visual splendor to spare, something that elevates the emotions and makes it accessible to both adults and children. Like the best fairytales, there is no neutering of the lessons here.

Young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is struggling with his terminally ill mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) in Britain. They live an up and down life, with his single mother constantly on the ropes lately. His grandma (Sigourney Weaver) drops in from time to time to help and lately the help has been staying longer than expected. Conor retreats into his drawings at night and during school, where he is often bullied by other teenagers, and one night he is visited by a monster. A tree monster. Voiced by Liam Neeson and appearing at 12:07 at night, the monster forms from a nearby yew tree near a church outside Conor’s bedroom. But the monster isn’t here to terrorize him; instead, it talks to him and tries to gain truth from Conor’s experiences.

But first, there are three stories that the monster wants to tell him. Three stories that take place as animated watercolors for the audience. The beauty of them is stunning and vibrant in their life. And, let’s be honest, having Neeson voice them is a pleasure. Many might scoff at the heavy-handed nature of the stories and the film. But for a movie aimed at children it never plays fast and loose with the emotions it is attempting to explore.

Lewis MacDougall talks to trees in A MONSTER CALLS. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Grief and rage are central. Conor is angry that his mother is sick. He’s angry at the fact that even when he acts out he isn’t punished. “You’re already going through so much” is the constant refrain he hears. He has no friends that we see. He’s secluded himself and when his grandma shows up to help take care of his mom, he acts out against her sternness, repeatedly butting heads with her. A MONSTER CALLS treats the emotions of Conor as true. Real. And it’s here that we can find honesty in the emotions and lessons of the stories, which have multiple meanings within and without.

The film was adapted from a short novel of the same name by Patrick Ness, who is making his screenwriting debut on the film. The novel was potent and powerful in its raw emotions. Reading it, I felt the anger and frustration of being Conor’s age again. I felt those same emotions while watching the film as well, a remarkable feat. The visual flourishes Bayona pulls from the narrative is best exemplified by the design of the monster itself. Each time it wakes up, there is a crackling glow that emanates from within. Every interaction with the set pieces around the tree added weight and heft to the creature. Outside of the watercolor stories, the film is muted. Maybe even drab. But it is Britain and this is not a story usually associated with bright colors. That’s partially why the tree monster works so well. The other is that the effects work is downright masterful.

This is not a film that strives to be light. It embraces its dark subject matter and rarely relents. That’s why it is thankfully short, coming in at a brief 108 minutes. The film makes it mark without being verbose. “Stories are like wild creatures,” the monster tells Conor. “When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they will wreak.” So why would anyone bring a young child to a film like this? Perhaps to open a dialog about what it means to grieve for a loved one that is suffering or has already passed away. I won’t pretend to know why people would seek this out beyond my own experience with losing my grandmother shortly before I came across the book. It reminded me that even in my twenties, it was OK to feel anger. Rage, even. Loss is experienced differently by each person, and the emotions one feels can never be discounted by others. How we deal with it is true to us, as individuals. Conor has anger that he isn’t quite sure what to do with. A MONSTER CALLS beautifully illustrates that emotion can be embraced and learned from while providing valuable lessons that serve well beyond just loss.

A MONSTER CALLS expands its release on Friday.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.