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Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Monster Calls Review

The Power of the Imagination

Grief has been tackled in so many ways on the big screen that we are at the point where it's hard to tell if a film is even being sincere in its intentions. The line gets blurred if a movie cares about its characters or if it simply wants your tears and will work overtime to get them. Spoken like a true cynical critc, I know.
Make no mistake, "A Monster Calls" wants your tears and should you surrender, it will be well-earned. Director J. A. Bayona ("The Impossible," which I loved) adapts the novel by Patrick Ness, who also serves as the screenwriter. It's a visionary tale about young Conor (newcomer Lewis MacDougall), who must face one of the hardest moments of his life; his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. This is hard for anyone, no matter what stage in life you are at, but as a pre-teen, Conor is forced to deal with emotions beyond his years.
The movie never lets us forget that Conor is still a kid and needs to be looked after, especially when his mother can no longer care for her son. He moves into his grandmother's (Sigourney Weaver) house, even though the two don't always see eye to eye.

For someone so young, Conor handles his mother's terminal illness with maturity but, expectedly, has moments where it's too much for him to handle. He escapes every night until a giant tree monster (perfectly voiced by Liam Neeson) comes to his bedroom window and takes him on an adventure. It's moments of fleeting levity that teach Conor how to handle the pain, even though it's entirely inescapable.
"A Monster Calls" might sound like it's plagued with the trappings of your latest Movie of the Week but Bayona is so invested in Ness' story, he elevates every frame with his vision. I was lucky enough to see this film at this year's Toronto Film Festival, where Bayona and his cast received a rapturous and lengthy ovation. He has done something right and has found a way to provide a cathartic tale of loss, with which many people are sure to find a deep connection.

Everyone performs well here, with MacDougall having to do a lot of the heavy lifting. His interactions with Jones and back-and-forth with Neeson highlight the film. The real strength to "A Monster Calls" is its story and messages. Here is a movie that celebrates the power of imagination, even at the darkest of times. When things get bad, even unbearable, Bayona's film teaches us to never lose your sense of wonder.

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