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Film review: A Monster Calls

An unusually sensitive, if predictable, monster movie that deals with adolescent angst

A still from ‘A Monster Calls’
A still from ‘A Monster Calls’ (A still from ‘A Monster Calls’)

In A Monster Calls, 12-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall) lives a life so full of misery that when one night, a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) approaches his bedroom window, he isn’t terrified. Connor’s mother (Felicity Jones), with who he lives alone in the gloomy England countryside, is dying of cancer. He dreads the idea of moving in with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who he doesn’t get along with. He hates his father (Toby Kebbell), who now has another family in Los Angeles. And in school, he willingly gets beaten up by a bully because it is better than not being noticed by anyone at all.

Connor has all the trappings of a future sociopath. But he also has a tender, vivid imagination—brought alive by stunning spells of animation styled like a water coloured graphic novel—supplied by the folklore, movies and sketches he is exposed to thanks to his mother. To the credit of director J.A. Bayona, A Monster Calls handles the two extremes of the spectrum of childhood emotions well. It is also that rare children’s movie—or rather, a movie with a child protagonist—that says it is okay for a 12-year-old to have violent tendencies, even as it provides a solution for it. The message is nothing new: you have to face your demons to grow up. You see the climactic reveal coming from a distance and it doesn’t have the desired impact. It’s the reason the movie doesn’t feel completely satisfying.

But the ways in which the movie plays with the monster-genre is impressive. There is constant referencing to the popular narrative of monsters, which Connor learns, is skewed. When he and mum watch the scene of fighter planes attacking King Kong atop Empire State Building, played on his grandfather’s old movie projector, he furiously roots for the giant gorilla. In folk tales, he imagines an alternate version where the young prince, and not the old witch, is the real evil. It is also of some significance that Weaver, who famously played the brave space explorer facing unfathomable, terrifying alien life in the iconic Alien (1979), is Connor’s no-nonsense grandmother. In a scene towards the end, she tells him that she knows they can’t be the best of friends but they have one thing in common: his mother. It’s a touching moment, as the youngest and oldest characters in the movie hug each other and promise to learn to live with each other.

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