The stentorian dialogue uttered by Liam Neeson booms like the voice of God in A Monster Calls, an utterly heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting film about a lonely 12-year-old child of divorce (MacDougall) grappling with his mother’s terminal illness. Neeson gives stupendous vocal life to the titular Groot-like creature conceived within young Conor’s imagination as the way to deal with his unhappy circumstances, a monstrous ambulatory tree violently sprung from the earth of an old graveyard, a beast whose branches and roots protrude from his gigantic torso like ligneous quills. Over the course of the film, the Monster relates three cryptic stories in a therapeutic attempt to help the confused adolescent sort out his jumbled emotions, but Conor’s fear and anger impede his ability to grasp their metaphoric meaning. The price for this triad of tales is high: The truth-teller demands the terrible truth in return. He commands Conor to tell him a fourth story, the recurring nightmare that haunts the boy, the one in which the ground gives way from underneath him as he struggles to save someone from plunging into the dark abyss. The climactic scene in which Conor finally confronts his horrible dream echoes a similarly tortured Conrad Jarrett’s revelatory confession in the psychiatrist’s office near the end of Ordinary People. This is tough stuff to witness, for kids and adults alike, but the payoff is worth it.
A Monster Calls is based upon screenwriter Patrick Ness’ award-winning 2011 fantasy novel of the same name, which in turn was based upon an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd to help children cope with a loved one’s incurable illness. (Dowd died of cancer before she could write her book, which makes this narrative all the more powerful.) Like many of his contemporaries, Spanish director Bayona displays a strong visual sense here, though he seemingly dials back the terror a bit to make the film more palatable. (One can only imagine how terrifying this movie might have been had someone like Mexican director Guillermo del Toro envisioned it.) But Bayona’s real strength is the way he connects with young actors, as he demonstrated in guiding the superb performance of Tom Holland as the elder son in the 2012 film The Impossible. Here, MacDougall’s turn as the tormented Conor is nothing short of miraculous. Even when the film doesn’t hang together perfectly, MacDougall maintains its momentum as his character painfully journeys toward a sense of acceptance. It may be only a few days into 2017, but this is a performance that you’ll remember for the rest of the year and beyond.
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