'A Monster Calls': Film Review | TIFF 2016

A sensitive and beautifully made lesson in the limits and power of storytelling.

A boy worried for his cancer-stricken mother (Felicity Jones) is consoled by a giant tree (Liam Neeson) in the new film directed by J.A. Bayona ('The Impossible').

Taking a much less intense look at a family in jeopardy than he did in The Impossible, his story of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, J.A. Bayona embraces fairy tales in A Monster Calls. Built around a series of encounters between the titular monster, a sentient tree voiced by Liam Neeson, and a boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is fighting cancer, the film brings some of the creepiness of the Spaniard's 2007 debut The Orphanage to what might otherwise be mildly sappy family fare. A neither-this-nor-that quality may make this pic tough for marketers, but taken together, Bayona's three features represent fine qualifications for his gig at the helm of 2018's unnamed Jurassic World sequel.

British pre-teen Conor (Lewis MacDougall) has been having horrific nightmares during his mother's long illness, watching over and over as a hole opens violently in the earth beneath a nearby church. So it's almost not surprising when, late one night, the majestic old tree beside that church writhes wildly into life, stomps over to the child's window, and announces (in Liam Neeson's voice), "I have come to get you."

The tree (it's a yew tree, and viewers may draw their own conclusions about the homophone there) promises that he'll return on three subsequent nights to tell Conor a story, then demand a fourth tale from him in return. In the daytimes between these visits, though, Conor must contend with bullying at school and the prospect of being looked after by his chilly grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, with an iffy English accent). As neither is very happy-making, he spends lots of time drawing (surprisingly well) in notebooks.

When the monster comes back (the camera notices that it's at 12:07 a.m. each night), he insists that Conor mentally envision each story as vividly as he can. The film brings the tales to life stylishly, with a mix of techniques that often echo Conor's drawing style. Each starts off like familiar storybook stuff — widowed king who remarries evil witch; prince who loses his lovely girlfriend — before wrapping up unexpectedly. When the new queen turns out not to be evil, for instance, depriving us of the payoff we expect, the monster defends his story thusly: "Many things that are true feel like a cheat."

So it goes each night. And while we don't really need for Conor's literature teacher to spell things out by insisting there are "two sides to every story," the movie's nocturnal exploration of gray areas and misplaced sympathies sheds light on the messier details of Conor's family life. There's Dad, for instance (Toby Kebbell, star of Black Mirror's brilliant episode "The Entire History of You"). Dad divorced Mom and started a new family in America; visiting Conor now, he has to make his concern for his ex jibe with the fact that they split. Sometimes, he explains, love stories end "messily ever after."

Even more than The Orphanage, which was executive produced by Guillermo del Toro, this monster-and-fairy-tale film shows the Mexican auteur's influence. The yew tree's branches wrap scarily around the boy, swallowing him up as the storytelling takes over his imagination; the tree's magic doesn't solve the boy's problems by "poof!"-ing them away, but by altering his understanding of the world.

Patrick Ness' screenplay, adapted from his own 2011 book, hits the emotional notes required by an illness-centered family drama with grace (Jones gets a particularly good sickbed speech, and delivers it beautifully), but also shows finesse in playing this side of the film against its fantasy. Surprised when his grief-fueled outbursts of violence aren't punished by parents or principals, Conor is asked more than once, "What could possibly be the point?" The fact that not every terrible thing can be remedied or appropriately punished is a tough lesson even for adults to learn, but A Monster Calls helps find the sense in it.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Galas)
Distributor: Focus Features
Production
companies: Apaches Entertainment, La Trini, Participant Media, River Road Entertainment
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson, Geraldine Chaplin
Director
: J.A. Bayona
Screenwriter: Patrick Ness
Producer: Belen Atienza
Executive producers: Patrick Ness, Jeff Skoll, Bill Pohlad, Jonathan King, Mitch Horwits, Patrick Wachsberger, Enrique Lopez-Lavigne, Ghislain Barrois, Alvaro Augustin
Director of photography: Oscar Faura
Production designer: Eugenio Caballero
Costume designer: Steven Noble
Editors: Bernat Vilaplana, Jaume Marti
Composer: Fernando Velazquez
Casting director: Shaheen Baig

Rated PG-13, 107 minutes

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