A Monster Calls is easily one of the more upsetting films I’ve seen in a long while. I knew what the narrative entailed before viewing it, but I wasn’t prepared for how much this movie would explore death and its consequences and how children cope with staggering loss. I’m typically wary of CGI-dominated storytelling, but here, the absolutely striking visual effects were in COMPLETE service to the emotionally harrowing material; the sound and fury on display means something, and therefore, as a viewer, my eyes didn’t gloss over when the aesthetic got rambunctious. Director J.A. Bayona, who previously helmed the immensely underrated tsunami drama The Impossible, has crafted a thrillingly artistic film that is both dark in theme and in palette; this is a nearly unrelentingly grim and sad piece of work that never softens any of its rough edges, with dark hued, edgy handheld cinematography employed by ace shooter Oscar Faura that feeds into Fernando Velázquez’s robust musical score.
Set in the U.K. and based on the novel by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls revolves around 12 year old Conor O’Malley, brilliantly portrayed by the young actor Lewis MacDougall, whose mother (Felicity Jones) is losing her battle with terminal cancer. Conor isn’t interested in living with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and he’s got a father (Toby Kebbell) living in America who has various reasons for not stepping up. And he also must contend with some rather cruel school yard bullying; this film really hits some mature notes that will need to be smartly processed by younger viewers. Conor then starts to imagine a humongous tree monster (wonderfully voiced by Liam Neeson) living outside of his house who aims to tell him three stories, and demands one final story in return. The baroque visual design of the tree and his surroundings is startling and unique, with the surreal images meshing beautifully with Eugenio Caballero’s vivid production design.
I’m not exactly sure who this film was geared towards, as it’s a piece designed way more for adults, and yet is told through the POV of a child, and the material is way too intense and layered for tykes to find involving (if they’re not scared shitless by the tree monster). It’s got a Joe Dante/Amblin feel at times, but it’s never playful or ironic or wink-wink. But in today’s Pixar-happy marketplace, a film like this seemed destined to get lost, which is exactly what happened. Produced for a reported $50 million, this film grossed less than $5 million in America, with international ticket sales preforming only modestly despite very favorable critical notices. Films like this are too smart for the room, and too challenging for mass audience attachment. A Monster Calls is definitely one of the more distinctive “family” offerings in quite some time, and a film I’m not likely to forget anytime soon for a variety of reasons.