A Monster Calls
4.5/5 MUST must see SEE
dir JA Bayona
scr Patrick Ness
prd Belen Atienza
with Lewis MacDougall, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Geraldine Chaplin, Ben Moor, James Melville, Oliver Steer, Dominic Boyle, Jennifer Lim, Max Gabbay
release US 23.Dec.16, UK 6.Jan.17
16/UK Focus 1h48
A Monster Calls
Tell me a story: MacDougall and the monster

neeson weaver jones
london film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
A Monster Calls This may look like a fantasy adventure, but it's actually a staggeringly resonant emotional journey that will connect with audience members of all ages. As it explores enormous themes from loneliness to grief, the film builds an earthy authenticity that even carries through its big effects sequences. Not only is it shot with skill and care, but it's anchored by a terrific performance from the young Lewis MacDougall.

At 12, Conor (MacDougall) runs the home while his mother (Jones) is treated for cancer. His imperious grandmother (Weaver) is too involved for his liking, while his dad (Kebbell) visits too briefly from Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Conor imagines the local churchyard's giant yew tree coming to life as an enormous monster (voiced by Neeson), who spins tales of princes and dragons. But the monster's stories are too complex for Conor, without clear-cut good/evil morality. And now the monster is insisting that Conor must tell the final story, and that it will be his truth.

Director Bayona builds a lush visual atmosphere, with Oscar Faura's rich cinematography and a moody score by Fernando Velazquez. All of this makes Conor's nightmarish visions unnervingly engulfing, seamlessly mixing earthy live-action with darkly intense effects. The variety of storytelling styles is lovely, from old home movies to gorgeous watercolour animation. Through all of this, superbly offhanded moments of humour and emotion ground the more fantastical elements.

Surrounded by an ace supporting cast, MacDougall is remarkable in this demanding role, conveying a mixture of hope and despair while maintaining Conor's quick wit and sarcastic temper. This is a restless boy who doesn't yet understand his own artistic insight, and he has a nagging feeling that no one is telling him the truth. After he finally vents his inner frustration, there's an astonishing scene between him and Weaver that sets the audience up for an emotional clobbering in the film's final hour.

This is a remarkably layered, multi-faceted exploration of the tension between grief and hope, and how important it is to understand that life can't be broken down simply as good or bad. The truth is what matters, even when it hurts: "If you need to break things, break them!" It might be tricky for this film to find an audience, because it won't be what anyone expects. But it has something to say to viewers of all ages, and its final message carries so much power that there won't be a dry eye in the house.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 5.Oct.16 lff

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© 2016 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall