A Monster Calls

(2016) *** 1/2 Pg-13
108 min. Focus Features. Director: J.A. Bayona. Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson.

/content/films/5017/2.jpgThe phrase “family tree” takes on new meaning in A Monster Calls, a fantasy drama with primal power for children and adults alike. Directed with the élan of a young Steven Spielberg by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible), A Monster Calls finds Patrick Ness adapting for the screen his children’s novel about a boy helped through his grieving process by a gigantic tree creature.

In northwestern England, twelve-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) internalizes his anger over his mother’s cancer. As it becomes clearer that single mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones of Rogue One) is losing her battle with cancer, Conor’s bottled emotion begins to turn from sullenness to unexpected rages, a situation unintentionally exacerbated by the arrival of Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and a return visit by Conor’s distant father (Toby Kebbell).

The wild card is the Monster (Liam Neeson), who appears to Conor like something out of his nightmares and promises, a la A Christmas Carol, three visits. “I will tell you three stories,” the Monster intones. “And when I have finished my stories, you will tell me a fourth.” Resembling a yew tree in humanoid form, this wicker man derives from the English legend of The Green Man, and here he is both a fearsome and ultimately comforting figure, a projection of the wise paternal figure Conor lacks and longs for (indeed, Bayona suggests the Monster may speak with the voice of the husband Weaver’s character lost).

Like the original fairy tales, A Monster Calls navigates the shadows rather than driving them away with the comforts of sunshine and primary color. The ingenious production design (by Oscar winner Eugenio Caballero) is both dreadfully dreary and elegant (as is the superb score by Fernando Velázquez), and Bayona incorporates beautiful animated sequences by Spanish outfit Headless to illustrate the Monster’s stories. This element also reflects the O’Malley family’s legacy of drawing, strong in Conor, and the importance of stories in teaching ourselves emotional intelligence.

/content/films/5017/1.jpgThere’s a simple power to the clean lines of Ness’ story, and it’s greatly amplified by the work of the actors. Without ever spilling over into cliché, Jones embodies the perfect love and sweet attentive care of an ideal mother; as we watch Conor’s mounting terror, we discover we can’t bear to lose her, either. Weaver’s English accent may be a bit wobbly, but she’s spot on in playing the concern and tentative command of a woman trying to keep a family together during a crisis, and MacDougall turns in a positively astonishing performance: there’s no catching him acting.

Since 2007’s The Orphanage, Bayona has firmly established himself as a smart and highly skilled orchestrator of potent cinema. His last film called an amazing true story The Impossible, and with this new psychodrama/fantasy, evocative of E.T. crossed with Pan’s Labyrinth, a truly impossible story somehow feels entirely true.

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