In A Monster Calls we are told the story of a boy who receives the guidance of a monster in dealing with his mother’s terminal illness. As you would be able to guess this story is about life and death in the realest way possible while still holding on to the fairy tale fantasy aspect of storytelling.
The story begins with a very accurate preview of what the next two hours will look like, incorporating the dreamlike horror of his recurring nightmare and the bleak coping of art in the real world. The entirety of the film ceaselessly reminds you that it is not going to look away from the pain we are constantly trying to avoid; it lulls you into embracing the unavoidable with whatever bravery you can muster because after all, we are just stories being told.
You might say Christopher Nolan makes “grounded,” yet big action movies, and you could say that J.A. Bayona makes “fantastical,” yet painfully real tragedies. After seeing his film The Impossible, I was struck with how beautiful certain sequences could be, even when they were riddled with images naturally asking you to look away. The idea of the cinema of excess has been going around where the basic idea is instead of characters struggling with their morality throughout the story, they reject the moral in favor of furthering themselves beyond this impossible to please limitation called morality; in turn, the audience is presented with their own struggle of balancing the wild surplus of pleasure with the immorality it consequently breeds, and how to reconcile the Aristotle with the Callicles in all of us.
I would argue that Bayona’s filmmaking style is precisely the opposite: the cinema of deficiency, in which we are drawn in with the minimum amount of aid on the part of the storytellers necessary to have us warring with the very concepts on screen, and filling the space with our desires and watching as we work through the implications is great but the approach of leaving room for people to reach out and meet the idea with a sense of space yet to be filled is where this film feels it asks us to go. It’s behind the door you don’t want to open that you generally find what you’re searching for.
The monster is excellently voiced by Liam Neeson. He guides the film along, while never carrying it himself. As much as a giant talking tree man could be a bit of a scene stealer, the film hinges on being the very personal and focused story of Conor, the regular boy whose soft spoken delivery shone so bright for me while being ferocious when necessary. Lewis MacDougall plays the part of Conor with a jarringly well controlled emotional spectrum, which would likely reveal the actor’s emotional intelligence to be much further than most of ours, let alone for someone his age.
The camera work places the “adult” conversations and grown up stuff off screen, behind closed or barely ajar doors and distant hallways. The focus is always on Conor, but in a very E.T. like way of capturing the story. We constantly see the world through his point of view. Almost always we are made to look at the unfolding of the story from this child-like perspective, not only in the camera work, but in the interactions with adults whom are towering over him. When he is made to feel big, we are still forced to acknowledge how small he really is. He is emotionally held back, and as he wades through the treacherous waters of coming to terms with what he cannot control. The film begins to allow space for our own conquest over ourselves and the blows we will have to stand up from again. Using the strength of our eye’s perspective as the motivation behind the camera is why Conor’s journey doesn’t just happen, but feels as though it’s being done to us as we watch.
Gut-wrenching is not enough to describe what your insides may feel as the truth of the story pushes out of the screen and forces a certain acceptance of the idea that this too shall pass, but it won’t pass smoothly. Humans have the ability to both lie to themselves and simultaneously know the truth is the cause of much turmoil, but the journey this film takes you on is a perfect demonstration of why speaking the truth to ourselves is so difficult. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, the journey will carry you whether you want to go along with it or not. I think it’s painful to know that we don’t actually have to come out of it better or with some insight, just that it’s there for the taking if you can muster the energy to seek it out along the way.
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