Tuesday, May 09, 2017

A Monster Calls (2016)

Film: A Monster Calls (2016)
Stars: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson
Director: JA Bayona
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

There are few movies where I go into the film and feel like it was staggeringly different than what I anticipated.  I generally avoid trailers if I can, particularly full trailers ("why can't all trailers be teaser trailers?" is a subject I have trod many times before, so we won't get into that), but with major movies it's kind of inevitable.  If anything else, I end up seeing these because I like my regular seat at the movie theater and get there before the movie started.  In 2016, by-and-large trailers were relatively accurate in depicting movies and their plots (with the notable exceptions of Zootopia and Passengers), so my favorite films of the year list featured few films that really stunned me that I liked them, save one: A Monster Calls.  I cannot remember the last time I had such a gut-wrenching, visceral experience from a film that on-the-surface looks like a standard fare popcorn movie.  Easily one of the best films I saw in 2016,  A Monster Calls was decidedly the biggest surprise for me personally in 2016.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film centers on a young man named Conor O'Malley (MacDougall), a middle school-aged young man who lives a relatively depressing life.  His mother (Jones), is dying of some sort of illness (it sure looks like cancer but it's never specified), and he is forced to live with his stern grandmother (Weaver).  During the night, however, he is visited by a monster at 12:07 who tells him a series of three stories, each showing morally ambiguous situations.  Slowly, Conor realizes he must tell his story, about a recurring dream that he has where he cannot save his mother from falling over a large cliff.

The film's center is around growing up, and realizing that people are not black-and-white, but internally complicated and frequently at odds with their baser instincts.  As it's a children's movie, it's quite obvious that the moral of the fourth story is that Conor must let go of his mother, that he must admit he wants her to be out of her pain even if that means he'll have to live without her, but the way it is presented and acted is so gorgeous it is hard to fault the picture for such an obvious moral.

Indeed, it is in that presentation that A Monster Calls summons all of its strength.  I cannot remember the last time Liam Neeson, such a commanding if occasionally staid presence onscreen, has been used so well.  His monster shows few cards, and his narration is wonderful.  The highlight of the film are his stories, particularly the first two, where an enchanting and rich animation sequence takes over-think "Tale of Beadle the Bard," but better in my opinion.  I genuinely said "wow" out-loud at least a couple of times during these stretches, it was such an impactive moment in a movie filled with grief but hope trying to get to the surface.

I also have to say, though, that while the animation was a highlight, I was struck by how raw and excellent the rest of the live cast was.  Felicity Jones gets the showiest part, and admittedly her mother remains unknowable, but through the eyes of a young man who will never properly get to know his mother, that seems appropriate, and she lands that "you break them" speech with a ferocity that I had yet to have seen from the young actress.  I personally think this is her best work, and while I can't quite say the same for Sigourney Weaver, this is certainly the first time I've seen her challenged as an actress in a while.  The scene where she comes across her home, broken by her angry, belligerent grandson and wordlessly breaks down in pain over her daughter dying, not over her broken things as we'd expect from the way Conor frames it-it's a magnificent scene.  Honestly, in a year where dying parents seemed to be a regular occurrence (Manchester by the Sea, Moana, Other People), this movie in my opinion stands apart as the one that finds a new approach to grief, showing its devastation and the way that life forces us to move on when we cannot imagine that it's possible.  It's incredibly moving, life-affirming, and spellbinding-the rare children's movie that feels made to be a classic.

Those are my thoughts on this staggering picture (like I said, genuinely one of my favorite films of 2016)-how about yours?  Considering its box office, did you even see it?  If so, share if you were surprised or if you found it more run-of-the-mill...I'm interested to discuss!

No comments: