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

Senior Editor
09.09.16 8 Comments

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.

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