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August 14, 2017 | by  | in Film |
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A Monster Calls — J. A. Bayona

There are children’s films, and there are films about children. If ever there were a film that proves how different those two categories are, it’s A Monster Calls, one of this year’s offerings from the NZIFF. With a screenplay written by Patrick Ness, adapted from his novel of the same name, A Monster Calls shows that a 12-year old protagonist doesn’t tie a film to that demographic.

The plot revolves around 12-year old Conor O’Malley, whose mother is dying of cancer, and who has nocturnal visits from a tree-like monster-turned-therapist. But just as A Monster Calls is not a children’s film, it is also not a cancer film — though it’s certainly a tear-jerker. Conor is guided through his anger and grief by the Monster, who’s voiced by Liam Neeson in a performance that sits beautifully between Aslan and Darth Vader. The Monster’s teachings take the form of three stories, fantastical tales of witches, princes, and apothecaries. The stories subvert their own fairytale qualities to show Conor that, as his usually-absent father says, “for most of us there’s just messily ever after.” There is a nostalgic thread that runs through the film’s visual aspects, from the Monster’s form as an Ent-like tree creature, to the presentation of his tales in painterly animation that heavily draws on Harry Potter’s The Tale of the Three Brothers, but is no less striking for it. These indicators of childhood imbue the film with a sense of wistful youth, drawing us into Conor’s emotional state and inviting us to consider how we would react in his shoes — at a guess, not much better.

Though the sombre themes can drag a little, seamless CGI and stellar performances propel a script that lags in places (it’s hard not to blame Ness’ literary roots). Felicity Jones is heart-breaking as Conor’s increasingly frail mother, and Sigourney Weaver plays a conflicted and well-realised grandmother, despite a slightly suspicious English accent. But any film with a child protagonist hangs on its youthful actor, and Lewis MacDougall shines in the main spot, communicating more with his tired eyes than many adult actors can with a speech.

A Monster Calls is a film about the ugly reality of grief, the complex nature of how children experience the world, and the age-old and irresistible theme of the link between imagination and emotion. To be entirely honest, while I know what A Monster Calls isn’t — a kids’ film, or a cancer film — I can’t firmly say what I think it is either. But I do know that a film that can keep an audience in their seats a full five minutes after the last credit (I must not have been the only one waiting for my tears to dry) is one that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten in the afternoon slots of a festival.

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