I just don’t understand it.
Why isn’t A Monster Calls receiving the type of praise that is standard for one of the ten best films of 2016? Is it because we aren’t accustomed to J.A. Bayona making critically acclaimed films (The Orphanage was okay but … not great)? I even brought that question up during a recent segment of CW-44 Around The Town that is set to air this weekend. CW-44 critic T.M. Powell noted that the film is an odd mixture of death, cancer, childhood wonderment, and a mother’s love.
On the surface, here is a fairly cut and dry monster/kid flick. In reality, this movie is far more; it’s a statement on the devastation of illness on a family and how children develop coping mechanisms. A Monster Calls is a powerful film that will leave audiences shattered, mothers and fathers and children all feeling its reverberations for weeks.
It drops the audience right into the middle of a day in the life of a young British boy named Conor. Conor is currently making it through each day despite being the target of ever present bullies and the mental torture of knowing that his mother is on death’s door at home. In order to escape the harsh truth of his reality, he creates in his mind an enormous tree monster that is equal parts terrifying and magnificent. The monster (voiced by Liam Nesson) informs Conor that he’s here to take a large role in his life. The tree becomes in some ways a surrogate parental figure for Conor in a time when he feels he has no one.
Conor’s mother is played by Felicity Jones and her performance is appropriately tough to watch; anything less would be an insult to the men and woman who battle cancer on a daily basis. I had a conversation with my mother recently about her constant struggle to remain cancer free, and she said “It’s never truly over.” And as a film critic ( and her son) who is approaching his forties, that is hard to hear. On Facebook, my good friend Aldara keeps us updated on what she calls the battle of her life and it’s a struggle to keep positive, but she does it for her loving husband and five beautiful kids. Bayona made a brilliant call when he kept Jones’s character name insignificant (I do believe she is referred to as Lizzie a few times) because she wasn’t meant to represent one person but the thousands upon thousands of men and women who battle cancer on a daily basis.
What’s most compelling is the insight into how children are often treated during the worst of times. The tree monster is a combination of both his conscience and his imagination. There is a point where his father (Toby Kebbell) and his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) try to slowly bring Conor to the realization that his mother isn’t going to make it, but, in his mind, the tree monster sees straight through their placation.
The entire cast of A Monster Calls doesn’t hit a false note while Bayona’s symphony strikes an all too real chord with many families. The film doesn’t attempt to answer the question of what one is to do when A Monster Calls and a family member falls ill. What it does show you is that love and coming terms with reality can help with the healing process. I don’t understand why this type of film isn’t getting the attention it deserves, but I do (like others) understand the horrors that cancer can unleash on a family far too well.