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A Monster Calls: Movie Review

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A Monster Calls weaves beautiful animation and heart-wrenching live action to tell the story of a boy coping with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) protracted struggle with cancer. Death comes to us all. Once it does, our job is done. It’s up to the living to pick up the pieces and reconcile what it all means. The movie is based on a novel by Patrick Ness, but the story was conceived by Siobhan Dowd, who succumbed to cancer before she could write the book. Blurring the line between real life and fantasy, A Monster Calls brilliantly contrasts wild imagination and harsh reality. The result is a hybrid world where possibilities seem endless until the bitter circumstances of real life come crashing back into focus.

12-year-old Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is troubled by nightmares of losing his mother. A nearby yew tree takes on a monstrous, but human-like shape and visits Connor, telling the boy he will share with him three stories, at which time the boy must share a true story of his own. Presented through vivid animated sequences, the monster’s stories puzzle and confound Connor, yet the boy pushes forward. These stories defy simple explanation, just as this film does overall. Though each story is imbued with unmistakable fairy tale feel, the moral of each is ambiguous, lending the tales distinctly modern sensibility. To their credit, the animated sequences are much more than beautiful indulgences; they poignantly inform and are informed by Connor’s struggle.

The border between what’s real and imagined is unclear. This ambiguity owes a debt to stunning cinematography. Director J.A. Bayona produced an evocative mix of impressive visuals and heartfelt acting performances. Connor’s father (Toby Kebbell) and grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) are cold comfort to the boy as his mother’s health deteriorates, a situation played with precocious discipline by young Lewis MacDougall. Only 12 at the time of shooting, MacDougall expresses incredible depth of emotion for an actor his age, particularly in quieter moments.

The symbolism woven throughout A Monster Calls creates rich layers that culminate in a touching, even haunting way. The world is a confusing place. Trying to make sense of it is a struggle. This film cleverly reflects that reality through characters who are trying to figure things out, bringing us along for the ride. And what a ride it is. I refused to let myself cry while I was watching this, which took all the discipline I could muster. Of course, we already know life doesn’t always cooperate. Oh, the tears came; it wasn’t up to me.

Losing loved ones is a fact of life, but one which people dread talking about. The cruel cost of that silence is the emotional complexity, the inner-conflict people go through becomes a needlessly solitary exercise. So many people have to figure out for themselves what so many others already know. Some of this is just how it goes. Knowing the emotional toll Connor’s journey takes isn’t the same as knowing how that journey feels. Life and death, guilt and innocence, these are black and white terms at odds with a world in shades of gray. A Monster Calls recognizes the absurdity of our need to hold on to incompatible ideas at the same time, particularly when letting go would ease our pain the most.

A Monster Calls (2016)
Director:  Juan Antonio Banoya
Studio:  Focus Features
Genre:  Fantasy/Drama
MPAA:  PG-13
Release Date:   January 6th, 2016
Author: Jason M. Brown

Jason M. Brown Seattle native Jason M. Brown traded liquid sunshine for the real thing when he recently moved to San Diego. Jason graduated from Washington State University with a Humanities degree focusing on English and has worked as a copywriter. An avid fan of comedy, horror, and almost any movie that started as a comic book, Jason lives in California, but still loves Seattle Seahawks football, apologies to the Chargers.

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