Thanks to films like 50/50 and last year's criminally underrated Other People, cancer has become a viable subject matter for comedy films in recent years. It makes perfect sense, since comedy's relationship with tragedy makes for frank discussions about death. With A Monster Calls, however, there's something far more surprising hitting cinemas — the cancer kids movie.
Pairing fantasy elements with stark reality, A Monster Calls is a stunning grief study that offers fun for the whole family — well, maybe more existential dread than fun. But it's for the whole family.
Lewis MacDougall shines as Connor O'Malley, a young boy trying to deal with the unfair hand life has dealt him as his loving Mum (Felicity Jones) deteriorates from a deadly disease. Rather than face reality head on, Connor retreats into a fantasy world of his own creation.
It's there that he meets The Monster, a wise talking tree expertly voiced by Liam Neeson. Through a series of parables, The Monster slowly introduces the idea of death to young Connor.
When he's not waxing philosophical with a talking tree, Connor is trying to figure out where he's meant to live when his mother inevitably passes. He wants to live in America with his absentee father (Toby Kebbel), but it's looking more and more like he'll get stuck with his grandmother (played with depth by Sigourney Weaver).
The backstory of A Monster Calls only adds to its emotional heft. The film is based on a children's novel originally conceived by writer Siobhan Dowd when she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. After her death in 2007, writer Patrick Ness completed the book. In other words, its story comes from a very real place.
Ness also adapted the novel for the screen, and J.A. Bayona handled the directing ahead of his big-budget Jurassic World sequel in 2018. Rather than fall prey to overwrought or manipulative heart-tugging (as he did in The Impossible), Bayona delivers a film with the sleek visuals and intense action of a blockbuster while letting the actual story do the emotional work.
A Monster Calls is a beautiful film with an important message about death, but it might not be for everyone. Hardly a sniffling tearjerker, it's more the kind of film that will have you full-on weeping in public, leaving the cinema with a face covered in snot and tears. (Universal)