Written by: Patrick Ness (screenplay, novel), Siobhan Dowd (original idea)
Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, and Felicity Jones
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Stories are wild creatures.
Despite the title, there’s no actual monster in A Monster Calls, a fact I point out not to spoil you or even to criticize as some kind of bait-and-switch. Rather, it’s to prepare you for how on-the-nose and obvious J.A. Bayona’s latest tearjerker is: the monster, you see, is more of a projection of its young protagonist, a 12-year-old kid who often feels like a monster because he’s a bit of an outsider. It’s a Metaphor with a capital “M” for emphasis, one that’s italicized and highlighted throughout this cloying, blatantly transparent attempt to tug at an audience’s heartstrings. There’s a place for this sort of thing, of course, but not when it’s drowning in so much schmaltz that it borders on feeling insufferably tacky.
The child in question is Conor O’Malley (Lewis MaDougall), who’s been dealt a tough hand in his young life. Chief among is concerns is his terminally-ill mother (Felicity Jones), a tough woman doing her best to remain hopeful in the face of such a grim diagnosis. But that’s not the only issue Conor is dealing with, as the story clicks off even more bummer clichés for him: his dad bailed on him when he was very young, he’s bullied at school, and he’s constantly in danger of being shipped off to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). To cope with all of this, he summons a monster in the likeness of a nearby yew tree. Voiced by Liam Neeson, it visits him nearly every night and eventually promises to deliver three stories before Conor will have to tell one of his own in return, thus giving the film ample opportunity to spell out its themes in neon lights.
This is the other main thesis of A Monster Calls: storytelling is a cathartic act that we need during difficult times, so each of the monster’s stories mirrors some element of Conor’s own life. The film is no doubt at its best during these digressions, as Bayona trades in live action for an animated aesthetic that mimics watercolor paint. It feels like the sort of dark whimsy the rest of the film aims for but doesn’t quite match, while the stories themselves a cool, twisted little fairytales with ambiguous morals. If A Monster Calls were just an anthology featuring these stories and dropped its ham-fisted, excess baggage, it’d be more my speed—I genuinely do think these animated sequences are quite well done.
It’s just too bad they’re in the service of a film that expects your tears without really earning them. Look, all films are manipulative, or at least all films with a pulse and some competence behind them. Some are just more deft and genuine in its manipulations because they trust their audience enough to get it. Bayona shows little faith in his audience, as A Monster Calls is a nakedly sentimental—which is not to say “earnest”—effort that drowns its audience in hackneyed, weepy cues: several shots of Jones confined to a hospital room, multiple scenes featuring Conor being bullied, all set to a cloying musical score. Grief is tricky to genuinely portray on screen to be sure, but it requires a lighter touch than seen here. A Monster Calls insists on its grief as a foregone conclusion, and it’s constantly crashing down with anvil subtlety—I mean, the very first scene is a loud nightmare sequence, complete with destroyed buildings and swirling debris. It’s grief porn by way of disaster porn meant to bludgeon your tear ducts into submission.
And I have to admit, it came treacherously close to coaxing some tears from me, if only because Bayona is talented as hell behind a camera. He instinctively knows which shots should register and is able to capture them with an effectiveness that’s deceptive, at least in the sense that you almost momentarily forget their larger, toxic context. A Monster Calls is essentially a 108-minute “for your consideration” reel that’s been painted in the broadest, most obvious of strokes: “please cry,” it begs without asking you to truly invest. It takes shortcuts, such as when it has Conor and his mother watch King Kong on an 8mm home projector, a scene that feels explicitly calculated to appeal to monster kids: “look, Conor is perhaps just like you,” it supposes while preying on your nostalgia. None of it feels genuine.
For all its visual effectiveness, it’s a film that relies on telling the audience in this manner rather than truly showing it. We hear an awful lot about how terrible Conor’s grandmother is, yet there’s nothing to truly back that up: if anything, she seems to be completely reasonable in her belief that her grandson needs to be prepared for the inevitable, and she never comes off as particularly callous about it. Likewise, the bond between Conor and his mother is all on the page and rarely amounts to more than saucer-eyed looks and teary conversations. It’s a dynamic that basically reduces Jones to a thankless role as Sick Mom who must die for her son to learn life lessons. She’s fine in the role, but it comes off as kind of a gross waste of talent.
One performance I did find affecting was Toby Kebbell’s turn as Conor’s estranged father (note: he’s credited simply as “father,” in case you want to know just how on-the-nose A Monster Calls is). Kebbell’s the only person in the whole film who feels like he’s playing an actual human being instead of a Hollywood cliché that’s been manufactured on demand. Even if his character is forced to lean on exposition to explain why he can’t always be there for his son, there’s an authentic vulnerability to his interactions. He’s a wounded father with no real recourse, a man who’s fucked up and can only do what little he can to patch things up with his son.
Eventually, the script also sabotages him, as he unceremoniously departs with the excuse that he doesn’t have enough room in his home in L.A. for Conor to movie in. I get that this sort of thing obviously happens, but it’s so at odds with the performance Kebbell gives, almost as if the script will go to any lengths to make you feel sorry for Conor, even to the point of creating developments that don’t make much sense. When your ultimate goal is to leave your audience an emotional mess, you’re willing to indulge nonsensical decisions and developments that are at odds with each other. Did I mention that one of the dad’s excuses is that Conor would miss his friends and school, even though the film goes out of its way to establish that said school is a hellish nightmare for his son?
I’ll grant that it’d be fair for someone to look at the premise for A Monster Calls and wonder how one couldn’t be moved. Truly, that would be the real monster, and that’s exactly what the film supposes. Bayona doesn’t move you as much as he guilts you into feeling something. A day later, I almost feel bad because who in their right mind could be left so cold by a film centered on a kid’s struggle with losing his mother? The problem is that this position is the only leg A Monster Calls has to stand on: it’s almost ironic that the monster here teaches Conor about moral ambiguity when the film itself is so simplistic. It deploys variations of the same maudlin trick and attempts to mask them with incredible cinematography and better performers than it deserves. Beneath it all, however, is the cynical emptiness of a film that only feigns at valuing storytelling; it somehow wants to assume to what a stories can do for us without actually engaging in one itself.
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