Complex Honesty, by Tyler Smith

23 Dec

It’s easy to classify J.A. Bayona’s beautiful new film A Monster Calls as just another family movie about grief and sadness, like Bridge to Terabithia or Where the Wild Things Are. But, while those films are perfectly good, it would be wrong to do so. That would be too simple, and A Monster Calls is not a simple film. Quite the opposite, in fact, as on its surface it would seem to be about loss, but is at its heart about something much deeper, something more complex. This is a film about honesty, truth, and the often contradictory nature of both. Not exactly light material, and Bayona – directing from a script by Patrick Ness, adapting his own novel – chooses not to attempt an artificial lightness. Instead, he embraces the feelings of its main character; namely a deep sadness and a need for escape.

The story revolves around Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a young boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. Of course, nobody actually uses the word “dying”, but it’s clear to the audience that her passing is imminent. Conor knows this, too, but is unwilling to fully confront it. And why should he? Every adult is constantly reassuring him that everything will be okay, so why shouldn’t he indulge this fantasy? As his icy grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) becomes more involved in his mother’s healthcare, Conor feels more alone. This isn’t helped by his interactions with his distant father (Toby Kebbell) or his brutalization at the hands of a school bully (James Melville), whose specific interest in Conor might be more romantic than either of them would care to admit.

In the midst of this comes a Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who tears his way out of a large tree and lumbers toward Conor’s window. The Monster spends the next several nights telling Conor stories of human frailty and moral failing. The heroes of these stories are often more flawed than it would first appear and the villains more humane than one would expect. Conor questions the necessity for these stories, especially when he should be at his mother’s side. The Monster does not answer, but instead offers cryptic clues as to his true motivations. Conor’s relationship with the Monster culminates in a scene of such heartbreaking beauty – and shocking emotional honesty – that I was personally staggered by it.

So much of this film is reliant on Bayona’s command of tone, not merely balancing fantasy and reality, but also childlike wonder and a desperate sadness. And he handles all of the above almost perfectly. It may seem strange for a monster to appear in the midst of this domestic drama, but Bayona sets the table so thoroughly through expressionistic art direction and lighting that it would seem strange if a monster didn’t show up.

A lot of weight falls on the actors, as well. Felicity Jones makes the most of her limited screen time and manages to convey a lot with her eyes. As she comforts and reassures Conor, we see flashes of understanding, and possibly even guilt. She is obviously torn between being honest with her son and trying to shelter him from the bad news, and knows that she’ll eventually have to pick one. Liam Neeson – who, between this film and The Chronicles of Narnia, is a good candidate to replace Morgan Freeman as the official voice of God – hits some unexpected notes in his performance as the Monster. While it would be easy for him to play the character as primarily comforting, Neeson brings some of his natural intimidation to the role and makes the Monster seem genuinely authoritative, and at times truly scary.

But, obviously, the star of the show is young Lewis MacDougall, whose fearless, vulnerable performance gives credence to the argument that kids understand a lot more than we think they do. MacDougall plays Conor with such fragility that it often feels like he could shatter at any moment. His Conor has a decency to him that makes the audience want to scoop him up in their arms, but a stubbornness that would keep him from letting himself enjoy it. It’s a remarkable performance.

As Conor’s mother gets worse and the Monster confronts him about his own feelings on the matter, the resulting scene isn’t only emotionally heartwrenching, but intellectually stimulating. In a film that could have simply been about expressing grief, it takes a sharp turn and becomes about being honest with ourselves about how we feel about things. It is possible for two seemingly opposite things to be true at the same time. Conor wants his mother’s suffering to be over, both for her own comfort and for his; he knows that the former is a noble feeling and the latter would be considered selfish. As such, he refuses to admit – to himself or anybody else – that he has his own needs and desires and that, at times, they might take higher priority than those of his mother. But, of course, to admit one wouldn’t mean negating the other, and this bit of complexity is something that we don’t often see in movies.

It is possible to love your spouse, but sometimes get so angry that you feel hatred for them. A parent can treasure his children, but occasionally long for freedom from parental responsibility. We can pursue something but be afraid to achieve it. We can have faith in the unseen, yet retain tremendous doubt.

These ideas are what A Monster Calls is all about. It is an intensely forgiving film, understanding human contradiction and refusing to let that understanding justify cynicism. We all have impulses that we’d rather not admit, thoughts that we’d rather not verbalize. But these thoughts and impulses aren’t the whole story, but are simply one side of the coin. And the sooner we can acknowledge the truth of our own failings – or, in Christian terms, our brokenness – the sooner we can embrace what the Monster refers to as the “real truth”: that we are capable of selfless love and devotion, despite our flaws. It is a complex message, but one that can be very freeing, especially to those that struggle with self hatred and guilt. After watching this film, I felt closer to myself, closer to my fellow man, and closer to God. It’s not just any film that can accomplish all three of those, but A Monster Calls manages to do so by being both challenging and comforting, which it suggests aren’t quite as different as they might seem.

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