J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls is a masterpiece. Full stop. It's a breathtakingly beautiful, emotionally honest and gut-wrenchingly sad look at coping with death, at maturing in the face of a tragedy, and of the importance of strengthening familial bonds. It's also one of the most powerful celebrations of the art and importance of storytelling, a medium that tends to lure us into movies like A Monster Calls in the first place. The movie is screening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
And it's going to make you cry. Oh, is it ever going to make you cry. I knew going into it that tears were inevitable, and yet, being prepared didn't hold back the sobs one bit. The story, written by Patrick Ness from his own best-selling novel, is a tearjerker. A 12 year old boy must cope with his mother's fatal illness, and that alone, on paper, will have most reaching for the Kleenex.
But I have a 12 year old son (and a healthy wife, Thank God). And he's wrestling with so many of the issues plaguing young Conner (Lewis MacDougall) in Bayona's heartfelt and wonderful film. Early on, as A Monster Calls sets its stage, Ness's screenplay describes Conner as "too old to be a kid, yet too young to be a man." And I see my own son occupying that awkward void every single day. The first lump formed in my throat, and stayed there until eventually, the tears just flowed like spring rains.Conner is dealing with troubles on all fronts. He doesn't want to admit that his mom (played by Felicity Jones) isn't getting better. His absentee father (Toby Kebbell) is back on the scene, trying to make decisions that affect Conner's future. And Grandma (Sigourney Weaver), who rarely sees eye to eye with her artistic but sullen grandson, is trying to make him see the reality of the situation, as uncomfortable as that may be.
While this is going on, Conner begins to receive visits from the Monster of the title, a tree creature who resides on a distant hill and has the gruff, dominant voice of Liam Neeson. The tree arrives at 12:07 am, and promises to share three stories with Conner... whether he wants to hear them or not. The stories pack life lessons, though Conner doesn't want to hear them. He wants the monster to heal his mom -- which may or may not be possible.
J.A. Bayona is a masterful filmmaker with a spectacular visual eye, a high-bar taste for visual effects, impeccable pacing skills, and the power to play our heartstrings the way a harpist gracefully plucks his or her prized instrument. His previous films -- The Orphanage and The Impossible -- were brilliant genre exercises that surprised with the staggering amount of heart and wisdom that could be found beneath the surface of his story.
After The Impossible, I called Bayona the next Steven Spielberg. If that's true, then A Monster Calls is his E.T.
Everything about A Monster Calls works perfectly. MacDougall carries the film's most emotional stretches, though he receives tremendous support when necessary from Kebbell and Weaver (Jones doesn't have to do much -- her characters casts a long shadow over the story). The Monster is a tremendous creation, and the sound design used to bring the creature to life will be the first of MANY Oscars for which this movie will contend. And the watercolors. THE WATERCOLORS!! When the monster tells Conner his tales, Bayona shifts into these gorgeous watercolor artworks that are original and spectacular. If I could buy one frame of Bayona's watercolors this afternoon, I'd pay whatever price to be able to hang one on my wall.
There are heartbreaking and uplifting scenes that will make your heart plunge and soar, and I can't wait for more people to experience the sadness, hope, and life-affirming joy that comes with A Monster Calls.
This is a perfect film. Perfect. It's my favorite film of the year so far, and a different movie is going to have to be out of this universe to knock A Monster Calls from the perch atop my annual Top 10.