A creative master of tone and atmosphere, I was enamored with director J.A. Bayona’s work within the first fifteen minutes of The Orphanage, his first feature film in 2007. Until now, the only other film he has made is the tsunami drama The Impossible (which was four years ago), but returns the third film of his feature career, a very emotional and grounded story with a fantasy angle to it. Paired with his usual cinematographer Oscar Faura, A Monster Calls is a gorgeous masterpiece that acts with an incredible amount of imagination and wonder.
The story follows young Conor, a very independent young boy who lives in a small country town in England with his very sick mother (Felicity Jones). Constantly going through new treatments and different approaches, the diagnosis is seemingly terminal for the young mother, although she infuses Conor with the belief that she will be healthy again. Adding to Conor’s problems is the constant vicious bullying he suffers at school and overwhelming, terrible nightmares. Desperate for a release from his malady, he makes a silent plea to the universe to save him and his dying mom. This is answered in the most peculiar way, as an old tree in the nearby cemetery comes to life, promising Conor three very life pivotal stories, with a fourth to be told by Conor himself, a telling of his nightmare.
As I said before, A Monster Calls is a fascinating and eye-popping piece of cinema. Each shot is laid out with such meticulous method, imbued with so much atmosphere. The stories are told in this incredible animation blend of stark black and white pencil drawings, which comes from Conor himself, and vibrant splashes of watercolor to draw forth that world of fantasy. This blend of storytelling just adds that much more weight to the real themes of acceptance and future loss because through these stories, Conor is able to begin to accept the very grown up issues that land on his shoulders and how to deal with them.
Almost all the weight of this film falls on the shoulders of the lead actor, young Lewis MacDougall, making just his second onscreen appearance. For this movie to succeed at all, you have to care about this boy and his plight from the get go and he has such a presence as soon as we’re introduced that we just want to see some semblance of happiness come from his very dark situation. The unbreakable bond between this mother and son is a stark contrast to what he faces with the uncertainty his life heads towards, as his grandmother prepares for him to move in with her and his father flies out, temporarily from the U.S., to care for a son he, in actuality, left behind. As an audience, we feel the clouds over Conor’s head and that has to be due to a close relationship between MacDougall and director J.A. Bayona. A Monster Calls is a bittersweet tale of love, loss and finding your voice beyond everything else. A must see but bring your tissues! 5/5