Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver
Director: J.A. Bayona
Running Time: 108 mins
A Monster Calls is an American/British/Spanish film about a boy who is visited by a tree monster who helps him as he struggles to cope with his mother’s terminal illness.
There are sad movies, there are tearjerkers, and there are films like this. Whilst A Monster Calls isn’t the strongest-starting affair, it features some of the most emotionally devastating moments I’ve ever experienced once it gets into its stride. After an intriguing opening act, the way the film takes you into deep into the mind of a boy going through a painful period in his life is staggering, and it will definitely have you in floods of tears.
But before I get into the film’s most powerful moments, I want to start with the first act. On the whole, whilst it’s not bad, the first forty or so minutes of this film only offer a flicker of the emotional capacity of this film. It’s a tender and well-measured drama, that manages the balance between real-life drama and fantasy sequences very well, making for an interesting watch, but there’s something that feels a little inconsistent about it.
The times when it does show what sort of heartbreaking emotion can be brought to the table are exceptional, but they’re quite few and far between, making the rest of the film seem a little underwhelming in comparison. What’s more is that the fantasy sequences, whilst handled pretty well, are a little in-your-face when it comes to delivering the film’s main metaphors.
As the story takes place from the boy’s perspective, we get a devastating lack of knowledge about the health condition of his mother, and as such he begins to retreat back to himself in the form of calling the monster. As the monster tells him a series of wonderfully-animated tales, they bear a clear resemblance to his own life, although it’s just a little too obvious. The film is so tender and beautifully made that the same message could have easily been delivered more subtly, and not taken you out of the boy’s emotional turmoil by spoon-feeding the main themes.
That said, the first act is an intriguing and gripping watch. However, it’s nothing in comparison to what the second and final acts deliver. Starting slowly at first, we begin to watch the boy’s life turned completely upside down, and soon, the film turns into an exceptionally dark and often emotionally traumatising watch.
Particularly devastating for anyone who has been in a similar situation to the boy, the film’s almost unrelenting ability to rip your heart out with constantly devastating emotional blows is utterly astonishing. I can safely say that I was crying my eyes and heart out for a solid twenty minutes through the film’s final act, making it easily one of the saddest and most emotionally overwhelming films I’ve ever seen.
And whilst it may sound unpleasant, it’s a testament to the incredible filmmaking, writing and performances in the film. Particularly in one astonishing sequence that borders on distressing, director J.A. Bayona uses the film’s incredible cinematography in tandem with stunning CGI to create emotional power the likes of which I’ve never felt before from a film. On the other hand, Bayona also tends to use some beautifully quiet and heart-wrenching sequences to deliver the same sort of emotional effect, and the fact that he manages to balance that and the louder, more traumatising sequences so well is hugely impressive.
What’s more is that the performances play a huge part in the film’s emotional power. Lewis MacDougall leads the film brilliantly, and handles the most emotionally intense sequences incredibly for such a young actor. Meanwhile, Felicity Jones gives a beautifully understated supporting performance as the boy’s mother, and Sigourney Weaver is a riveting presence on screen at every moment as she attempts to negotiate the difficult circumstances alongside her reluctant grandson (although her accent is a bit dodgy from time to time).
On the whole, there’s a lot to say about A Monster Calls, a lot of which is good, and some of which is exceptional. Starting off as a slightly inconsistent albeit gripping drama, the film eventually turns into an emotional rollercoaster the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Unbelievably frank and dark at times in its depiction of this young boy’s inner turmoil at a devastating time in his life, I couldn’t hold back the tears at all, but that’s what makes this such a memorable and impressive watch, which is why I’m giving it an 8.5.