In an Oscar season dominated by big, splashy titles from incredible directors, it's easy for smaller movies to get lost in the shuffle. Even in the terrific space of the Toronto International Film Festival, there's a growing concern that movies are being swallowed whole by the fest's increasingly large slate (read this great Variety piece for more on that). J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls made quite the impression at TIFF, but I'm concerned that it could be overshadowed by the bigger movies of the season. On the surface, A Monster Calls has a lot riding against it. For starters, it's a fantasy film, and the Academy has an instant distaste for those. Secondly, it's a film aimed at families, and those tend not to do very well with the Oscars either. And finally, it just simply doesn't have that prestige factor that some of the Oscar movies like Fences or La La Land have. Simply put, it's going to have trouble gaining any serious awards traction.
That's really a shame, because A Monster Calls is one of the most magnificent films of 2016. It is absolutely heartbreaking, and for a lot of people, I firmly believe that this movie will be incredibly therapeutic. It's a movie that, despite the use of a fantastical metaphor, deals with grief and loss in a very frank, open way, which is surprising for a film aimed at families. Yes, it is emotionally manipulative, and there is no getting around that at all. This movie wants you to cry. No, I mean, this movie really wants you to cry. And it doesn't want you to just shed a single tear or tear up at the most potent moments. It wants you to cry so hard that your tear ducts dry up. But in between the tears, you'll find a movie filled with raw power, sadness, and love. It's an impressive, unforgettable piece of cinema, and a devastating, riveting gut punch.
By most accounts, Conor is a very normal 12-year old boy. He has a passion for art, deals with a complicated family life, and suffers at the hands of the schoolyard bullies. But while Conor has to grapple with all of the normal pains of young adult life, something much worse is happening- his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. The doctors are trying all sorts of treatments, but nothing is helping. Throughout his entire life, Conor's mother has been the one closest to him, especially when his dad (Toby Kebbell) moved out to Los Angeles. Conor's grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) doesn't exactly understand his complex emotions either, and with this whirlwind of tragedy, Conor has nothing to hold onto. But one night, a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) enters his life. Like a grandfatherly version of Groot, the Monster (who never has a name) arrives when the clock strikes 12:07. He informs Conor that he will tell him three stories, and that when his job is done, Conor will tell him the fourth. The result is deeper and sadder than you could ever imagine.
J.A. Bayona is certainly one of the most promising directorial voices working today, and A Monster Calls only emphasizes that fact. His career launched with the Spanish-language horror/thriller The Orphanage, which was executive produced by Guillermo del Toro and met with praise from critics. Bayona waited five years to direct his follow-up, but anyone who has ever seen The Impossible can verify that it was worth the wait. One of the most grueling, relentlessly brutal disaster films ever made, Bayona's crushingly realistic depiction of the Indonesian tsunami is essential viewing. With A Monster Calls, the Spanish filmmaker continues to refine his style and polish his craft, delivering his best work yet.
Look, I'll say this about Bayona- he likes to pummel his audience. If The Impossible was physically exhausting, then A Monster Calls is emotionally strenuous, a movie so profoundly sad that it'll crush your heart and leave you in shambles. But beyond that overtly powerful shell lies a subtle humanity that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. A Monster Calls deals with some ugly things that most films would avoid, and it's amazing to see a mainstream movie tackle such potent themes without hesitation. This is not a film about a kid who's mom is dying of cancer. This is a film about a young man coming to terms with the greatest tragedy of his life and finally admitting the emotions that lie deep inside him. It is honest, it is organic, and it is dazzling. Bayona directs the film with the delicacy of a brushstroke, giving each character and situation an emotional richness that is just spectacular. His direction is patient, and it leads to a payoff that works wonders. He knocked this one out of the park.
Bayona's film has a grand scale to it that is mightily impressive, highlighted by effects work that is bold and breathtaking and watercolor sequences that are simply gorgeous. A Monster Calls has the look and feel of a stunning work of art, and there's a light, rhythmic touch to it that is both epic and intelligent. But while Bayona has the benefit of working with a rather large production, he retains an intimate sensibility, mostly due to the rather small ensemble. Five actors hold A Monster Calls together, and while a few supporting characters pop in for a scene or two, these great performers are the ones who carry each and every scene of the film. It all starts with Lewis MacDougall, the young British actor who proves himself to be an incredibly gifted star in this film. From the opening moments, MacDougall is thoroughly convincing, and he only gets better from there. He's able to convey so much of the anger and sadness that runs through Conor's mind at any given moment, and when he finally reaches that catharsis at the end, it's a wonderful, somber moment that will floor you.
The fact that MacDougall is the actor who shines most in a cast that includes brilliant actors like Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Toby Kebbell says a lot about how good this kid is. But make no mistake, the rest of the lead ensemble is spectacular as well, especially Jones as the dying mother. It's an affecting, touching performance, and she has some moments that will shatter your heart into little tiny pieces. An Oscar nomination for Jones feels like a sure bet, and if it doesn't happen, I'll be sorely disappointed. The choice to have Weaver, an American actress, portray Conor's British grandmother is initially jarring, but that goes away rather quickly. Weaver gives an incredible performance here, turning an unlikable character into a sympathetic one with ease. Toby Kebbell has significantly less to do, but there are some really stellar moments with him as well. And finally, you can't talk about this cast without mentioning Liam Neeson's magnificent vocal performance as the Monster. He's both gruff and tender, which is pretty much what Neeson does best.
If there's one flaw to be found with A Monster Calls, it's certainly the film's rocky start. It took me a while to get fully invested in what Bayona was doing, and I wasn't sure where exactly it was going. The film doesn't truly come into focus until the third act, which is far and beyond the best part. If you've ever wondered what it's like to watch an entire section of a movie with tears in your eyes, this one will give you that answer. Bayona gives you the emotional release and then some, delivering a finale that is as superb as it is sorrowful. With this subject matter, there was never any real doubt in my mind that A Monster Calls would end with some tears. The magical part is how Bayona injects so many small intricacies and subtleties that tie the entire movie together. It's such an unexpected surprise, and it's jaw-dropping to behold.
A Monster Calls will undoubtedly unleash an army of cynics who will pride themselves on their ability to get through this movie without even shedding a tear. After the initial reviews broke, the blowback against this one was almost immediate and I have a feeling that it's a debate that will rage all the way until the film's release in December. But for most viewers, resistance to this film will be futile. It's a deeply moving, affecting piece of cinema, a movie about the grief process that is both sweetly fantastical and brutally real. As someone who has experienced a loss in the last year, A Monster Calls hit home in an honest, heartfelt way, and I'm sure anyone else who has had to grapple with death will feel the same. From the performances to the effects to the Earth-shattering finale, A Monster Calls is just plain great. Get the Kleenax ready.
THE FINAL GRADE: A (9/10)
Images courtesy of Focus Features