A Monster Calls is not just a movie, it is an emotionally and visually stunning experience. Having seen the preview and the press release, so I was prepared for the serious story underlying this fantasy film. I was not prepared for the intense, touching, personal journey upon which this movie takes viewers.
The film, by director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) and author/screenwriter Patrick Ness, tells the story of Conor, a 12-year-old boy who tries to deal with his mother’s worsening cancer, while coping with a father who lives half a world away, bullies at school, and a grandmother with whom he doesn’t get along. And then, his consciousness is invaded by a monster.
The cast, the story and the production are all exceptional.
Lewis MacDougall plays Conor, displaying an emotional range one would not expect from such a young actor. This was only his second film, having played a supporting role as Nibs in Pan. He already has two more films under his belt, The Belly of the Whale, currently filming, and Boundaries in post-production.
Conor’s mum, Lizzie, is played by Felicity Jones (Like Crazy, The Theory of Everything). Lizzie, having become a mother at 18 and being abandoned by Conor’s dad, gives up her art career and develops a close relationship with her son. Jones, with great subtlety and sensitivity, portrays motherly love under the shadow of immanent death. She allows us to sense the life and joy that was in their relationship, even as we see her character physically deteriorate.
Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Ghostbusters (1984)) plays Lizzie’s mum, Conor’s grandmother. In a handout provided by the film’s publicists, Weaver explains that this was her first grandmother role. “In the book and in the script,” she said, “Conor says she doesn’t really look like a grandmother, so that was a wonderful place for me to start!”
Liam Neeson plays the monster, through motion capture and voice over. His voice fits the giant tree-based monster, both demanding and concerned at the same time.
Award-winning actress Geraldine Chaplin (Doctor Zhivago, The Three Musketeers (1973)) does a cameo as Conor’s school teacher after he has a run-in with a bully.
The film is based on the novel by Patrick Ness, inspired by a project of the late Siobhan Dowd. The book has been translated into 40 languages and is extremely popular with teens. This would have been Dowd’s fifth novel, but, ironically, she succumbed to cancer soon after starting it. When Ness received the project, Dowd had written about 1000 words and a very detailed outline.
Ness’ screenplay adaptation of the novel is faithful to the original. Ness explained, “To me, this is a story about fear of loss. I was really trying above all things to find the truth of how Conor felt; to not lie about it, not suggest it, not sugarcoat it, not sentimentalize it…to really feel how it hurts, because it surely does.”
The tears in my eyes during the screening suggest that Ness succeeded.
This is a film writers and directors should all see.
A through line in the dialog between Conor and the monster is about the importance of telling stories – what they can mean to us and how they affect our lives. Conor’s quest given to him by the monster is to faithfully tell his story. It is through story that he receives his redemption.
Visually, the production is striking. When I saw the preview, I was immediately reminded of Pan’s Labyrinth. Later, I found out that the two films shared both Production Designer Eugenio Caballero, who won an Academy Award for Pan’s Labyrinth, and Producer Belén Atienza.
A Monster Calls combines both live action and animation. When the monster tells Conor a tale, the visuals shift to animation. One might think that this would knock a viewer out of the story, but it doesn’t. There is also a key plot point that revolves around Conor and his mum’s artwork, so it all ties in.
Music, by Fernando Velázquez, sound and direction all add to the impact of the film.
In the opening sequence, we see Conor getting ready for school, fixing his own lunch. We wonder where his mother is. Then, from off screen, a cough. Conor goes to his mum’s door to peek in. Without a word, we have learned about the main character and his situation.
The film is rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images. As a parent, I would not take young kids to it without viewing it first. It is intense.
A Monster Calls will open in limited release in ten cities on December 23 and go national to 1500 theaters on January 6. The trailer is linked below. More images and info on the film can be found on its website, Facebook page, and twitter.