Cast: Liam Neeson, Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver
Running Time: 108 minutes
There is something deeply brave in A MONSTER CALLS, director JA Bayona’s cinematic presentation of Patrick Ness’s understandably praised young adult book.
A boy of 12 – no longer a child, not yet a man, as these tales often go – finds himself trapped in a period of tremendous discomfort. Not adolescence – although that is rarely fun for anyone. Never mind the bullies who routinely beat him, or the balance of his schoolmates who don’t notice him at all.
True, these are real problems that often litter angsty pre-teen dramas. But Bayona and Ness are prepared to more closely examine something far less frequently explored because it is untidy, uncomfortable and hard to look at.
Conor’s mom is going to die, and we spend 108 minutes – brilliant, honest and profoundly sad minutes – with him as he deals with that sad reality.
A monster (Liam Neeson) – in the form of a walking yew tree – visits Conor (Lewis MacDougall) every night and tells him stories. But like everything else about this film – and about life, for that matter – the stories are messy and frustrating. They do not fit the tidy, black-and-white fables Conor wants to hear.
“Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary,” explains the monster.
Simply and beautifully, A MONSTER CALLS articulates so many insights about adolescence and about grief.
What is so startling about A MONSTER CALLS is now true it is to this particular time in life: the baffling behavior of adults, the suffocating aloneness, the disconcerting rage and guilt.
MacDougall steers clear of clichés with a courageous central performance. Though Sigourney Weaver’s accent is noticeably weak, supporting turns are uniformly strong.
Neeson – who narrates one of every three documentaries produced on earth – knows how to employ his voice alone to bring this thrilling beast to life.
But the real stars are Ness, who adapted his novel for the screen, and Bayona.
As he did with his breakout 2007 film THE ORPHANAGE, Bayona takes his time and lets his story take its own shape. Of course, part of that shape comes courtesy of a darkly imaginative animation department.
As splendid as the film is, minor faults stand out – the sound is sometimes garbled; sick-bed make up could be stronger; Weaver’s no Brit.
And like Spike Jonze’s underappreciated 2009 masterpiece WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, A MONSTER CALLS is in many ways a better fit for adults than for children. It is such a refreshing and intelligent departure from traditional family fare that it’s hard to even see it as part of the same category. This poignant beauty is in a class all its own.