Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"A Monster Calls": one-paragraph review

Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?

Why do I do this to myself? I watched "A Monster Calls" last night, and it was godawful depressing, but despite my tears and tight throat, I appreciated the way the movie used symbol and narrative to convey harsh truths about the world. Based on a kids' novel by Patrick Ness, directed by JA Bayona, and starring Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, and Liam Neeson, "A Monster Calls" is the story of a tween boy named Conor (MacDougall) who has a dying mother (Jones), a strict grandmother (Weaver, with an awkwardly muddled British accent), and problems at school in the form of a bully named Harry (James Melville). With his life crashing all around him, Conor mentally conjures a massive, tree-like monster (Neeson) who always appears at exactly seven minutes after midnight. The monster informs Conor that he will relate three tales, after which Conor must tell the monster a fourth tale—one in which Conor faces his recurring nightmare (of losing his mother at a yawning pit that opens up in a graveyard) and utters the truth at the heart of the nightmare. Facing trouble at school, Conor also faces trouble at home with the arrival of his prickly grandmother. He finds some relief when hanging with his visiting father (Toby Kebbell), who now lives in Los Angeles after having divorced Lizzie, Conor's mother. But even the time Conor spends with his father goes sour as the prospect of Lizzie's death approaches. The monster's tales are of little help: they espouse a moral view of the universe in which injustice is the natural way of things: a murderer can get away with his crime and become a good ruler; a selfish apothecary can allow a pastor's daughters to die, yet still be called just; a man considered invisible by those around him can conjure his own monster and turn violent. "A Monster Calls" is about how a boy deals with grief in the face of his mother's terminal illness, which is why I found the film depressing: the story hits close to home. At the same time, I admired the film's lack of coddling: the monster speaks monstrous truths, through his narratives, about the real harshness of the world, and when he finally gets Conor to shout the confession at the heart of his nightmare (I'll let you guess what it is), the moment has the force of a breakthrough during a psychotherapy session. This is, after all, one of the things that the monster symbolizes: it's an ambulatory yew tree—Groot meets Ent—and yews are known for their healing properties. The monster, despite its terrible aspect, brings a boon along with its banes. Its very nature embodies the paradoxes of the truths the monster wishes to convey to Conor—that beauty and horror, good and evil, death and life are all wrapped up in each other. It's a shame that such a well-acted, visually beautiful movie made zero profit at the box office ($43 million budget, $43 million earned worldwide); as morality tales go, it's actually an excellent one for kids to see, assuming they're old and sophisticated enough to begin to understand the issues surrounding death and dying, and how the lessons learned from tragedy can be applied to how one lives.

One-sentence summary:
A troubled boy with a dying mom receives tough-love psychotherapy from an imaginary humanoid tree that simultaneously symbolizes destructive rage and inner healing.

No comments: