I’m not crying, you’re crying
THIS is the shit I’m talking about. THIS is what I love about films. Not some overrated simple comedy, not some maudlin avant garde shit; but an honest to God, good film that still finds a way to rip out my torso and play the guitar solo from Iron Man on my heartstrings. This people, is the only film that premiered in 2016 that actually made me fucking cry. Oh yes, this is the good shit.
We’ve got Connor (Lewis MacDougall) taking care of his mom (Felicity Jones) who’s suffering from a severe case of cancer. Things have cooled down for a while, but lately Connor’s been plagued by a nasty nightmare and his mother’s condition is beginning to worsen. Facing the prospect that he will have to live with his domineering grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) or his absentee father (Toby Kebbell) if his mom doesn’t improve, Connor retreats to his imagination when a monster (Liam Neeson) that springs forth from his closest yew tree comes to the young boy and explains that he will impart three stories onto Connor and the boy will have to deliver a fourth story about the nightmare that has recently plagued him. The stories (surprise, surprise) have a double meaning that could impact Connor’s life as he deals with his mother’s situation.
So right off the bat we’re dealing with the touchiest of topics: cancer. What I found refreshing though was that Connor isn’t being portrayed as an innocent family member suffering in silence as the cancer slowly destroys his mother, a cliche that appears in far too many films. Instead, Connor is portrayed far more honestly as someone who is having a very poor time of handling his shit. He’s easily agitated, constantly ignores his family’s warnings that his mother will very likely die, and becomes withdrawn from friendly conversation at school. And Lewis MacDougall, fresh off his mediocre debut in Pan, delivers this portrayal in a way that most actors have a difficult time conveying. He’s easily one of my favorite parts of the film, which is a good thing since you spend nearly all your time with the boy.
Connor’s relationship with his father and grandmother go into far more complex directions that other films would have stayed away from. For one, Connor’s father isn’t strictly a deadbeat dad. He simply lives in another country, on the other side of the world with his own wife and child; and money is not something he has infinite access to bring Connor over on a permanent basis. Further, Kebbell portrays this man as someone who recognizes that he’s no parent to Connor, he recognizes the situation is far more complicated and even acknowledges that he’s taking an easy way out. Speaking of which, Kebbell is at his best here. Had no idea he could pull off a British accent so flawlessly, and it’s nice to see him do well after seeing him wasted in Fant4stic and underutilized in Ben-Hur (2016).
And let’s not forget Sigourney Weaver while we’re at it, who’s not doing too shabby of a job with a British accent…though you can hear it crack in one or two scenes. The accent isn’t the most important part about her character, however, it’s the fact she’s introduced as a stereotypical ice queen and almost set up to be an antagonistic figure towards Connor. Instead, two key scenes force you to reevaluate your thoughts on the lady in a surprising way, if only because the film is reminding you that this isn’t merely a fantasy but an exploration into hard knock facts of life. One scene had me cringing at what I was seeing because I so profoundly uncomfortable (in a good way); and the other comes from one the parable-like stories from the Monster.
Speaking of which: holy shit, that Monster. It looks freaking amazing, one of the best creature design and effects I’ve seen in 2016 easily. Even the sound design for the creature is impressive, his every movement cracks as the gnarled husk stomps around and the echoes encompass the theater but not enough to drone out what he’s saying. And that’s extremely important as his words are given to us by Liam Motherfucking Neeson. Some of these kids forget that before the age of Taken, Neeson was a respected dramatic actor that brought people (including myself) to tears with moving scenes like this one as Oskar Schindler. And here as the Monster, he roars onto the scene that makes Groot look like a pushover, and delivers multiple moments more powerful than saying “We are Groot.”
While initially hostile to Connor, the Monster quickly demonstrates he’s being stern with the boy to impart him with valuable lessons through his stories. Surprisingly, these stories aren’t all about “things will turn out okay” or “everything has a silver lining.” No, his stories lay out some in-your-face truths that many adults I know have trouble accepting. Neeson’s Monster isn’t here to scare your worries away, he’s here to tell you that life is pretty fucked up and you need to deal with that shit. I’m speaking generally as I can, because I want people to experience the stories for themselves, which are very much worth a look.
They’re impressive both because you have Neeson serving as your narrator (side note: I need more Neeson narrating shit…video game companies get on that) and because they are gorgeous to see. Using a mix of watercolors and computer imagery, Glassworks Barcelona did an amazing job in delivering some wondrous imagery that looked so unique and so impressive that it reminded me of that great Tale of the Three Brothers sequence from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I both in terms of impact to the film and its striking beauty. And they do not serve as distractions from the main thrust of the film, but rather in service to the plot.
The story concept was originally developed by a lady named Siobhan Dowd, a British writer for children’s novels, who had conceived of the characters and the premise but did not have time to do so. Sadly, she was suffering from breast cancer at the time, and needed help from another novelist to publish her tale for the world. That writer was Patrick Ness who also penned the screenplay for this movie, and what a marvelous job he did in translating the novel into a cinematic format. There’s no fat to the dialogue, the scenes all make sense, and the story is every bit as impactful as the origin story behind the book. What Ness has crafted is something special for people suffering through a debilitating illness and their surviving family members dealing with the pressure and stress from watching a family member go through such pain.
All of this is brought you by a director who has crafted the only other film that has ever made me had tears roll down my face, J.A. Bayona. Years back, he directed an excellent horror flick called The Orphanage. If you have a great relationship with your mom, that film is going to fuck you up, it practically destroyed me when I saw it years ago. And Bayona’s back with A Monster Calls that comes at you to deal with one of the most honest facts about witnessing a loved one suffer: survivor’s guilt. Guilt that you couldn’t have done more to help them or say all the things you wanted to say before your loved one passed on. It’s an incredibly difficult topic to handle, one that most Oscar bait films can’t do all that well, but this movie succeeds in crafting a tale that makes you weep and still comforts you through blunt-force trauma.
No other film in 2016 has attained the rating I’m about to give. While there’s been several strong contenders in the latter half of the year, I need to assign the rating to movies that truly shook me to my core. And I’m head over heels in love with A Monster Calls. Please, I’m begging you, go see this movie. It’s hands down my favorite film theatrically released in 2016 and I think you’ll find something to appreciate within it as well. This movie is…
BETTER THAN SEX!!