“Most of us just get messily ever after... and that’s all right,” reflects one character in J.A. Bayona’s haunting and elegiac film, which witnesses the devastation wrought by cancer through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy, who has yet to come to terms with the impending loss of a parent.
In the hands of another filmmaker, the teenage protagonist’s inner turmoil could provide a road map to emotional manipulation via crocodile tears and mawkish sentimentality.
Spanish filmmaker Bayona, who deftly handled the destruction of the 2004 tsunami through the eyes of another adolescent in his drama The Impossible, allows our tears to well gradually, rather than bludgeon us into submission.
Edinburgh-born relative newcomer Lewis MacDougall is mesmerising as the film’s fulcrum, tearing at his character’s fractured heart with maturity beyond his years.
Felicity Jones and Sigourney Weaver offer sterling support, while director Bayona marshals impressive visual effects to elegantly underline each haunting dramatic note.
Reclusive schoolboy Conor O’Malley (MacDougall) is in denial about the dark shadow hanging over his mother Lizzie (Jones).
He silently soaks up physical abuse at school from bullying classmate Harry (James Melville), and seeks refuge each night in his vivid illustrations.
As darkness falls and midnight strikes, the yew tree which stands guard over the nearby church magically comes to life and morphs into a gnarled creature (voiced by Liam Neeson).
The behemoth visits Conor and promises to share three parables.
“Stories are like wild animals. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak,” growls the hulking visitor.
The creature demands just one thing from Conor in return: “Tell me your nightmare.”
Each night, the creature spins his yarn and the boy listens intently, searching for meaning in the words.
He only finds bitterness and confusion.
“Many things that are true feel like a cheat,” warns the creature.
Meanwhile, Conor struggles to articulate his churning maelstrom of fears to his well-to-do grandmother (Weaver) and estranged father (Toby Kebbell).
A Monster Calls is an unforgettable start to the new year, crafted with love, tenderness and sensitivity.
The catharsis of the final act is a thing of exquisite, heartbreaking beauty.
I surrendered to juddering, uncontrollable sobs, remembering the loss of my mother eight years ago to the same merciless and monstrous disease.
Some wounds never heal, nor should they, for they are an important reminder of the fragility of our precious day-to-day existence, which we take for granted at our peril.
:: NO SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 8.5/10