"successfully mixes fantasy with harsh reality without making the film too cumbersome or undermining such an important topic"
Inspired by the homonymous novel written by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls is an incredibly heartbreaking movie that explores grief and how difficult it is to try and move on after a great loss. Through the eyes, mind and imagination of a young man trying to cope with the curveball that life has thrown at him, the film intertwines real life with fantasy, creating a perfect mix that showcases the protagonist's psyche and his emotional fragility.
The plot is, as you can imagine is quite dramatic; after a happy childhood spent drawing and painting with his mum, Connor has to grow up faster than any kid his age due to a terminal illness that is slowly killing her and forces him to take care of her. Through these difficult moments, while his grandmother is trying to take care of him, Connor is also being bullied at school.
Overcome by pain, anger and mistrust in everyone around him, he starts to hide himself in his art, the only connection he has left with his mother. One day, unexpectedly his art comes to life and a gigantic tree becomes his guardian. Connor's new fantastical protector strikes a pact with him, he will tell him three stories and by the third one Connor will have to tell him the truth about himself and his real story.
A movie with such a sad and difficult story to tell can be really difficult to process and it is in danger of becoming too serious to fully appreciate it. However, by mixing together harsh reality and Connor's dark imagination, A Monster Calls succeeds in analysing a child's psyche after experiencing the worst traumatic event in his life.
Loss is at the centre of the story, having to say goodbye to a dear one is painful and shocking; Connor's way to process everything is to close himself off and don't show any emotions. His need to act "like an adult" causes his psyche to conjure the monster tree from paper to reality in order for him to let out all his bottled up pain. In his imaginary reality his frustration and anger explode through the fists of the tree. This monster is there to make him understand that being angry, sad and frustrated is normal, that having to live through all of this is something that a child shouldn't face alone. But most importantly the monster is there to make Connor understand that letting go of someone is not wrong as long as you don't forget them.
The CGI mixes with the real scenes fluidly throughout the movie, the fantastical realm is employed to represent Connor's mind and how dark his unexpressed thoughts and emotions are. The tree is the voice of reason trying to make him understand that feeling everything is not wrong.
The cast is completely led by Lewis MacDougall. His performance is heartbreaking. He embodies Connor's pain and anger effortlessly understanding and conveying his extreme grief after losing his mum. His performance is intense and the bond that he creates with the audience is strong.
Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver support Lewis every step of the way without outshining him. In the few scenes Felicity Jones has with Lewis MacDougall their bond is strong and seems real. Their characters share a love for drawing and they express their emotions through their creations in the same way. This makes Connor closer to his mum even when he is by himself.
The relationship between Connor and his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is more strained as she is more rational and practical. This makes it harder for her to connect with the child and help him cope with his loss. However, this doesn't mean that his grandma is not suffering, she only has a different way to express it, by keeping herself busy and organised in order to not succumb to pain.
Liam Neeson who lends his distinct voice to the tree gives an outstanding performance. His voice resonates with power and wisdom, his presence is so powerful as he is there to represent the protagonist's repressed anger and sadness.
In portraying the representation of a child's grieving process after losing his mum, A Monster Calls successfully mixes fantasy with harsh reality without making the film too cumbersome or undermining such an important topic.