A monster movie that wants to teach us how to cope with death; noble, but does it stack up well? Lee reviews.
Sobriety, in the emotional sense, when facing the death of a loved one is something very few of us will likely ever achieve. Once in that moment, your natural ability to protect your own mental and general wellbeing, met with your desire to prevent the oncoming death, will very likely have you doubling down in irrational behaviour. Yet, it’s a time that usually calls for the reverse; if you’re anywhere near the position of responsibility, you will have more to carry than you can ever realistically prepare for, and this affects children and adults alike. A Monster Calls exists to give you the heads up in this regards, and a lesson worth learning; prepare to be unprepared.
Blending something of a fantasy element into a modern surrounding, the story follows Conor O’Malley and his mother, who has cancer, and is seeking more sophisticated treatment. At night, he sees her falling down a pit, and at the same time every night he is visited by a twisted tree monster, who endeavours to tell him stories with ambiguous messages. Conor also has to contend with his estranged father and his difficult grandmother, not to mention bullies at school. There’s quite a number of threads, befitting of a novel adaptation, but some clever editing keeps the narrative rather trim, showing only the necessary information.
The film thrives in the exploration of its protagonist’s trauma: as the pressure and the severity of reality rests firmer on Conor’s shoulders, we see a deterioration as he looks to his fantasy monster for solutions and advice, and we as an audience are drawn there with him. The mounting of pressure is steady, never reaching a boiling point too quickly as to cheapen the effect of the movie’s payoff, which is A Monster Call’s crowning glory; a sober message delivered soberly. It’s a careful movie, attempting to build a character experience while also telling a universal story that could be understood readily by anyone, and it achieves much of this almost effortlessly thanks to incredible, patient direction, a wonderful and memorable cast and solid writing that does well to focus more on realist dialogue than ambiguous fantasy talk.
While an easy recommendation, there are some slight caveats that knock the film-craft as a whole. The fantasy is both necessary and important to the story, but so is accessibility and, when it comes to keeping the audience seated for an hour and a half it seems imperative to truly nail the first ten minutes or so. A Monster Calls opts to layer on a high concept mystery, in which four tales, one a prophetic nightmare, as well as some ambiguous dialogue from the monster, open the movie. While it’s all important to the narrative, and fun to boot; immediate, rather than tempered, fantasy-mystery is sure to scare away the kids and adults who need the message most, those who might not be open to this kind of film initially. This delayed fantasy might not be so important to the film if the focus were more on the shared experience than the eventual message, but a message is useless if not heard by the right people and this intro makes it harder for the right people to get anywhere near it.
Attempts at layering hidden messages and subtle re-readings of the narrative are also handled somewhat messily; the direction already lets us know about the importance of eyes, as we often linger over drawings and the monster and nearly all communication between Conor and the side-characters begins with eyes and whether they do or do not meet, yet the narrative still clumsily puts in a nod to it that also doesn’t essentially matter to the story. These added layers of depth, in something of a mystery narrative as well, feel misleading and will more likely confuse those trying to invest in the story than it will benefit those trying to get more out of the story second-or-third time round. There might be nods to the grandfather’s connection with the monster, and therein perhaps a subtle second message of life-after-death creating a secret optimists view of the realists story, or potentially a naturalist view of death as we all embody and aide an aspect of this tree creature in time, but that’s for the interested to figure out for themselves or to speculate; flat-out hints aren’t required.
Much of this won’t matter to those interested however; A Monster Calls is more than charming and well-intentioned enough to warrant at least a single viewing, and its emotional payoff will speak for itself, likely embedding its good-meaning nature in your mind and hopefully becoming something of a touchstone with which to lean on in the harder days to come. It’s a gorgeous and inspiring effort than manages to near-seamlessly transfer a story from page to screen, and should be seen by kids and adults alike no matter how prepared you are.