TIFF Review: A Monster Calls
C Flanigan/ Michael Tran/ GP Images/ Alberto E. Rodriguez/ Getty Images
AKA, the movie where everyone cries for two hours straight. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage) commits another act of emotional terrorism with his latest movie about a little boy learning to grieve with the help of a semi-terrifying tree monster with a weirdly muscular butt. A Monster Calls is a beautiful film that will move you to tears—seriously, I wept openly for half the movie so the less c*nty among you will cry buckets, be sure to take lots of Kleenex—and will also guilt-trip you into calling your parents afterward, grateful they’re still alive, assuming they are. If they’re not, this movie is certain to drag all that sadness up and make you relive it.
Lewis MacDougall (Pan) stars as Connor, a young English boy struggling to keep his sh*t together as his mother (Felicity Jones) wastes away from cancer. During this time, Connor is also dealing with bullying from a red-cheeked lad at school who is clearly in love with him, and semi-regular visits from a goddamned tree monster voiced by Liam Neeson. The monster visits at 12:07 and comes to tell Connor stories, which Connor thinks are going to help him save his mother, but which are blatantly apparent to the audience as parables of coping to help Connor with the impending loss of his sad cancer mom.
Connor’s life really sucks. Besides his mostly dead mother and future-banker-with-impotence bully at school, he also has an absentee father (Toby Kebbell, Ben Hur) who has a new family in America, and a stiff, unwelcoming grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, doing a spotty English accent) who wants to take him in after his mom kicks the bucket but also doesn’t want him to touch her stuff. Connor’s relationship with his grandmother is one of the more satisfying arcs in the movie, though, as these two willful people find their common ground. The most satisfying moment in the film has nothing to do with the monster, but when Connor and his grandma finally begin to deal with one another rationally.
Bayona knows how to do dark, vaguely upsetting visuals, and he does that plenty here, with numerous scenes of child endangerment and people dying of cancer. The monster’s stories are presented in creepy animated segments, which are beautifully done, and Neeson perfectly balances his delivery between menacing and paternal, which is sure to leave children with daddy issues the same way old Disney cartoons ruined stepmothers for everyone.
The animated fairytales recall The Secret of Kells, and the monster-helping-you-deal recollects Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where The Wild Things Are. He also knows how to make a moment fraught with tension from the simplest of things, like a glance over a shoulder, a pencil rolling on the floor, or a grandmother’s china collection.
And he gets solid performances from everyone, particularly Neeson’s vocal performance, though Jones is the weak link. She doesn’t have a lot of presence and she spends most of her time dying in bed, but her eyes are sufficiently big enough to provoke a protective instinct in the audience, which is close enough to real acting to suffice here.
A Monster Calls is the cheapest therapy session you’ll ever have. It’s going to bring up a lot of stuff and make you feel very sad, and you will cry a bunch, but in the end you will experience catharsis. It’s a bit like Kubo and the Two Strings in that it’s ostensibly a kids’ movie that will more likely be enjoyed by adults. Beautiful though it is, I’m not entirely sure who this movie is for, except maybe child psychologists who will be glad to have a new learning aide for their grief workshop.