TIFF 2016: ‘A Monster Calls’ Is Touching, Beautifully Crafted, And Personal To A Fault

A Monster Calls is one of those films that’s so poignant, personal, and thoughtfully crafted that you can’t help but praise it, even though you never want to see it again and secretly maybe didn’t even enjoy it that much the first time. Wait, wait, no, where are you going? It’s very good! Beautifully shot, finely acted, written with both passion and nuance! You’ll probably cry! If I knew a child who was learning to grieve, I would definitely make him or her watch this movie. Thing is, and astute readers may have already noted this, I am not a child learning to grieve. And so it was kind of a drag. Not depressing, exactly, because A Monster Calls is smarter than that, and full of beautiful moments. It’s more… relentlessly touching. To the point that it’s kind of exhausting. It’s a beautiful little storm cloud of a movie, that communicates the nuances of grief movingly, but also perfectly illustrates why we sometimes avoid grieving people. That sh*t is heavy, man. That’s hard to be around for very long.

Lewis Macdougall plays Conor O’Malley, a tastefully-dressed English 12-year-old whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. I know, right? F*ck. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is kind of a battle axe, though she means well, and the other kids at school pick on him, because… well, because this is a movie, I guess, and every little kid has to be beset with comically cruel bullies in order for us to commiserate with him nowadays. Nice cancer mom, stupid, can I borrow a tumor? (*punch to the stomach*)

Conor is an artistic type, and every night at 12:07, a giant tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson explodes out of his drawings and into his room to coach him through this wrenching predicament. But if you’re expecting the usual magical realist fable of metaphorical demons made real then conquered, think again. To A Monster Calls’ credit, the Neeson-Monster’s stories are never reductive, and in fact their very purpose is to teach a boy on the cusp of adulthood nuance. The magical element’s function is actually to help the protagonist outgrow magical thinking. (I may not have enjoyed watching it much, but this movie is smart as hell.) When Conor complains about the seeming pointlessness and distinctly non-crowd pleasing nature of Neeson-Monster’s stories (meta!), he says things like “stories are wild creatures.” “Sometimes love isn’t enough.” And “life doesn’t have many good guys and bad guys, most people are somewhere in between.”

I know, right? It’s heartbreaking and touching and beautiful. And yet… It’s a whole movie about a sad kid whose adorable, understanding, supportive mother is slowly, inexorably succumbing to cancer. Waiter? I’ll have the ‘hell nah platter’ with extra ‘no thanks,’ please.

Directed by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible), A Monster Calls is also similar to Inside Out (I’m sorry I ruined its RottenTomatoes rating, okay?! I was right though!) in that it finds profound edification in the simple act of being able to admit when you’re sad. The idea of children learning that it’s okay to express feelings of sadness… that’s great, and helpful to them, I’m sure, but I don’t know how else to say it: It’s just not that cathartic to me. It doesn’t seem like that great of a story arc. A sad boy now knows his true feelings! Guess what? He’s sad! Congratulations! Your prize is that your mom still dies.

To A Monster Calls‘ credit, at least the protagonist’s sadness is more earned than, say, a little girl who had to move to a different mansion with her supportive awesome upper middle class parents. And the stakes are less nonsensical than, say, spontaneously forgetting how to play hockey. And Liam Neeson’s growly, tough-love tree monster is inarguably a cool-as-hell character (then again, so was Bing Bong). But it’s still a movie about a sad kid losing his mom to cancer. Hard to get past that. It might have worked better if it had leaned more heavily on the coming-of-age angle and less on the learning-to-grieve angle.

It almost goes without saying, but everyone around me seemed to be bawling their eyes out. Someone behind me blew their nose — we’re talking loud, flatulent goose honks here — probably 40 times. I felt like I was in a comedy sketch. Their entire row even left right after the moment of climactic sadness, even though there were still like 10 minutes of movie left. I don’t want to say A Monster Calls is sadness porn — truly, I don’t think it is — but it’s kind of hard to avoid the comparison when you’re sitting next to someone who literally showed up, blew their goo into a tissue and then left.

It was a smart, touching, beautifully acted, cleverly written film, and I’m glad it’s over.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.