Tuesday, January 17, 2017     Volume: 31, Issue: 25

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New Times / Film

This weeks review

‘A Monster Calls’ examines the complicated emotions surrounding loss




Where is it playing?: Downtown Centre, Stadium 10, Park

What's it rated?: PG-13

What's it worth?: $ Full price (Anna)

What's it worth?: $ Full price (Glen)

User Rating: 0.00 (0 Votes)

J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) directs this young adult fantasy drama about Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy dealing with his mum’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness and repeated attacks by the school bully, Harry (James Melville). Conor meets a “monster” (voiced by Liam Neeson), a humanoid Yew tree whose stories help Conor fix his difficult life as he learns to face the truth. The story was conceived by Siobhan Dowd during her own terminal illness and eventually written by novelist and screenwriter Patrick Ness. The film also stars Sigourney Weaver as grandma, Toby Kebbell as dad, and Ben Moor as Mr. Clark. (108 min.)

Glen: Witnessing someone slowly succumbing to a terminal illness is a terrible thing, more so when that someone is still very young, and worse still when she’s your mother and you’re just a boy. Such is Conor O’Malley’s fate, and it naturally conjures difficult-to-process emotions no matter how old you are. In a way, having a bedside seat at a terminally ill patient’s demise is like going through the stages of grief while the person is still alive. Indeed, Conor is in denial that his mother is dying, believing—or at least wanting to believe—that each new round of chemo, each new treatment will fix her. Likewise, his anger is fully on display, leveled at his grandma who doesn’t understand him, his father who he feels has abandoned him, and his bullying classmate Harry. When the monster shows up, it’s Conor’s psyche trying to help him sort through it all, and he bargains with the monster for his mother’s returned health. He’s certainly depressed about it as well, and the film is essentially waiting for Conor to reach the final stage: acceptance. Along the way, it’s a gripping, emotionally potent, and inherently dramatic ride, and as someone who watched my father die of cancer in hospice care in our family living room, it packed an additional wallop. I definitely could have used a box of tissues or two.

Anna: The film starts with a nightmare that Conor has over and over again, in which he loses his grip on his mother’s hand and she falls away into nothingness. His fear is easy to see, even under the brave face he tries to put on for his mum, who clearly has the whole of Conor’s heart. He’s a small and artistic boy, a loner by all accounts, and an easy target for Harry and his band of bullies. He’s caught in that painful and rough stage between kid and man, forced much too early in his life to deal with his mother’s impending death and the upheaval of his world. When the monster first comes to him, he tells Conor he’s there to tell him three stories, after which Conor must tell him a fourth story—the story of his nightmare. The boy is reluctant and dismissive, insistent that he has no time nor need for stories, but soon is caught up in the monster’s first tale, that of a prince and an evil queen. I really enjoyed the animation style they chose for the monster’s stories, an inky, drawn look with pops of color and selective detail. Conor soon learns that the monster’s stories are not fairy tales of good triumphing over evil but instead the very messy reality of humanity. Evil can win, and goodness can be ignored and overturned. People have both darkness and light in them, and life will never be fair or good to everyone. It’s an emotionally resonant message for all, but especially for those who have experienced the unfairness of death so close to them.

Glen I agree that the animated sections were something special, with the bleeding watercolor saturating the paper into inky black and red splotches. The drawing style itself was very distinctive, and if you take a look at the credits, you’ll find more than 200 names of people who worked on these sections. The monster special effects were also quite impressive, though there were a couple of small hiccups, most notable when the monster, who has Conor in his hand, sets the boy down. But such quibbles hardly matter in the face of such an engaging film. It helps that MacDougall can act with a ferocious intensity, and that Jones and Weaver offer complicated and nuanced performances, but Neeson and his deep, resonant voice steal this show. It’s a wonderful film dealing with a situation that unfortunately everyone eventually faces. The idea was conceived by a woman who died of breast cancer at age 47, and in her final days, she set up The Siobhan Dowd Trust, which funds opportunities for young people to read and enjoy literature. I imagine this film might offer some solace to someone too young, like Conor, who has to come to terms with the death of a parent. Do yourself a favor and grab a few napkins from the concession stand; you’ll need them.

Anna That’s for sure; this is one hell of a tearjerker. It’s rated PG-13, and I don’t think I’d take a child much younger than that to see it because of its difficult subject matter. I can see how this book and subsequent movie could be great tools for helping people as they move through the stages of grief, particularly the young adult audience it targets. I was very impressed with the cast all around, young MacDougall taking on the layered and brooding Conor with zeal. Jones is tender and delicate as his mum, their relationship coming off with a genuine sweetness and sadness. Of course Neeson’s resonant and graveled voice work is nothing short of awesome, his stories weaving together what Conor must ultimately learn: to speak his truth. Seeing the monster’s intricate detail and the watercolor illustrations on the big screen is worth it, as are the performances all around. The bittersweet ending both breaks your heart and warms it, leaving Conor perhaps more alone, but also allowed to move on with his young life and build on his new path with his grandma. A Monster Calls will pull at your heartstrings, cause your mascara to run, and make you want to call your mom all at once. I’ll be much more prepared with a box of tissues the next time this movie crosses my path. 

Split Screen is written by Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.