A Monster Calls
TIFF 2016: Felicity Jones delivers a poignant performance as JA Bayona brings Patrick Ness's fantasy novel to the screen
Childhood can be traumatic enough without the added nightmares suffered by 12-year-old Conor O'Malley in the screen version of the Patrick Ness gothic fable A Monster Calls. His mother (Felicity Jones) is battling cancer, his father (Toby Kebbell) has a new life that seems unlikely to involve Conor, he is being bullied at school and his severe, no-nonsense grandma (Sigourney Weaver) hardly oozes sympathy and support.
Spanish director JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) rather overdoes the visual fireworks, animated sequences and thunderous sound design of a film that works best when quietly addressing the emotional torments faced by Conor, played by dynamic Scots youngster Lewis MacDougall. His fears and anxieties are so vivid, that he brings to life a giant, yew tree shaped monster with the commanding presence and booming voice of Liam Neeson. The monster offers a deal: in return for telling Conor three stories on successive evenings, the lad must promise to tell a tale of his own. The stage is then set for stories designed to illustrate that good and evil are not as clear-cut as he might think and that the adult world is filled with ambiguity, compromise and heartache.
A Monster Calls is a coming-of-age tearjerker wrapped inside a web of fantasy and magic. There are echoes of Pete's Dragon and The BFG in the notion of a child and his unusual new friend, but the storyline is slender and sometimes feels as if it maybe does need all the colour and spectacle that Bayona can muster. In the end, it is the performances that matter most, with Jones on poignant form as the dying mother and MacDougall impressing as an adolescent embarking on the long, tough journey towards adulthood.
Screening as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2016. General release from Fri 6 Jan.