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TIFF Review: A Monster Calls

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At the question and answer period after the world premiere of A Monster Calls, director J.A Bayona said, “Stories are important.  Stories are our teacher.” Certainly the director attached himself to a monster of a tale indeed full of teachable, poignant moments.  This is a story about loss, grief, strength, family, and love all told from the perspective of a young boy, Connor, and the images he conjures.

Connor (Lewis MacDougall, most recently seen in Pan) is dealing with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones).  Being cared for by an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and with his father (Toby Kebbell) living overseas, Connor feels invariably alone.  He immerses himself in his drawings, a welcome distraction from the overwhelming pain in his life, both emotional and physical, courtesy of the school bully.

Then one night, at 12:07, something all at once magical and frightening happens.  The old yew tree he views through his window suddenly comes to life – branches becoming arms and legs, with fiery eyes, a lumbering walk, and a menacing voice.  The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) states, with no room for negotiation, that he will come to him each night and he will tell him three stories.  At the conclusion of this series of tales the boy is to tell him a fourth – Connor is to tell him the truth.

A Monster Calls rides heavily on the performance of MacDougall who seems to take the weight on his shoulders with ease.  A challenging role for any actor, let alone one that is so young and inexperienced, Connor needs to be withdrawn, yet sympathetic, strong yet wrought with guilt and sadness.  This young man is able to portray all of this and can hold his own against the wonderful Felicity Jones who strikes a chord as his ailing mother.  She really is establishing herself as one of her generation’s best actors, and seems to have excellent intuition in the variety of roles she’s taking.  This one is small, but leaves an everlasting impression.

“Stories are wild creatures,” says The Monster in the film, and this tale is no exception.  However, in the capable hands of Bayona, who uses his visuals to great effect here, the story never goes off track.  The stories the Monster tells are beautifully animated with stunning brilliance.  These alone make the film worthy of a viewing.  However, Bayona also utilizes the experience he has in large scale effects previously working on The Impossible.  The director never overexposes the audience to his effects tools, keeping each instance of The Monster, and each story he tells, a spectacle to be seen.  Yet, he is also able to maintain intimacy between a mother and her son whose connection is made palpable.

This film is one of the better showings at the festival so far – a tear jerker, yes, but also a film that asks big questions about life and loss, suffering and guilt.  They’re not easy topics to crack, and this film manages to apply its fantasy in a very real way in order to bring them to light.  The question here is what audience A Monster Calls will eventually find – too mature for a young crowd, perhaps not appealing to the ‘tween’ market that would really respond to it, and likely not on the radar for adults.  The commercial success of this film may be limited to the awards season love it finds, and the positive reviews it is sure to inspire.

Check out all of our TIFF coverage.

4-out-of-5

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