Given the advertising campaign and trailers for this film you could be forgiven for embarking on a family trip to the cinema. The surface information all points to a family adventure, a fairy tale and a level of fantasy akin to the Never Ending Story or The Dark Crystal. A young boy and his monster pal on a whirlwind path of everlasting friendship was certainly my perception of the film.
However, this is not that type of film. This is a film that deals with grief, mourning and their process through the eyes of a 12 year old.
Lewis MacDougall is Connor, a young boy who has a lot on his plate. Bullied at school he comes home every day to his mother (Felicity Jones) who is suffering from cancer with every attempt to extend her life failing. His parents are separated, and his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is prim, proper and keeps him at distance through it all.
His only relief comes in the form of a monster (voiced by the wonderfully gruff Liam Neeson) born out of a nearby ewe tree. The monster comes to him to tell him tales that, although cryptic, will help him if he searches for their true meaning. The monster also wants to hear his story and discover his deepest truth.
A Monster Calls is a beautiful fantasy tale that processes very emotive, difficult subjects. Bayona has made a film where the fantasy elements would not be amiss in a Guillermo Del Toro film. In fact to pair this with Pan's Labyrinth would be quite the double bill as both films could be classified as adult fairy tales/fables.
In some ways the adult nature of this piece could be the films' biggest problem. With a 12A certificate in the UK I'm not wholly sure who the target audience of the film is. Certainly at the Saturday afternoon screening I attended there was an odd mix in the room. Some adults, mixed in with a group of teenage lads with a few parents and young kids on family outings. I found the young children there particularly interesting as I wondered at their ability to cope with the themes addressed and even the monster himself, who at times was intense and frightening. Certainly this is not a film that I will be showing my kids just yet. Equally, this is not your typical 'date night' movie as the seriousness of the subject overtakes fantasy and in the final movements is a real tear jerker.
Despite this reservation I must stress that this is a wonderful film, filled with a very relatable pathos. The majority of us know what it is to lose a loved one. We have all, at some time, cried out in pain, anguish and heartbreak. Lewis MacDougall will break hearts with this fine performance, and rightly so. For a young actor he magnificently displays the emotional journey. His anger and fears are palpable and feel honest throughout.
Perhaps though, his greatest achievement in this performance will be to mend some broken hearts. As we see him mourn we who have lost can see ourselves in his shed tears. We all know how it feels to stand in his shoes and In our pain cry out in frustration at God, monster or the stars above at the unfairness of it all. The performance he gives may be the healing balm that some viewers need.
A Monster Calls may struggle to pin down a target audience but it in no way will struggle to win hearts and has certainly won mine.