Monday 23 September 2019

A monster of a tearjerker

Spanish director JA Bayona has delivered an instant classic with A Monster Calls, but have the tissues ready

Newcomer Lewis MacDougall gives an effortlessly outstanding performance as Conor in A Monster Calls
Newcomer Lewis MacDougall gives an effortlessly outstanding performance as Conor in A Monster Calls

Anne Marie Scanlon

I think I inadvertently insulted Juan Antonio "JA" Bayona, the diminutive Spanish director of A Monster Calls. "Did you enjoy it?" he asks eagerly and, rather clumsily I say "enjoy isn't the word I'd use".

Let me try to explain. A Monster Calls, based on the book of the same name by Patrick Ness (based on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd), is an instant classic. It is a beautiful film, powerful and thought provoking. But it is indescribably sad. By the end of the screening I was biting hard on my fingers because I wasn't just crying, I was sobbing and I didn't want the other journalists to hear me. (I needn't have worried, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.) "Enjoy" just doesn't seem the appropriate word.

Apart from leaving me emotionally devastated the movie also succeeded in freaking me out as there were far too many parallels with my own life. Conor O'Malley is a sensitive young boy of 12 "a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man", who is bullied at school. He is the only child of single mother Felicity as his father lives in America.

His glamorous granny (Sigourney Weaver) has a job, a car, and a house full of antiques.

There are some differences - my little boy is nine, and my mum is a far more affectionate granny than Sigourney and, crucially, I'm not dying of cancer as Felicity is. Also we don't live beside a graveyard with a giant, ancient elm which comes to life and tells stories with the voice of Liam Neeson.

In a film that features acting heavyweights like Neeson and Weaver any actor would struggle to shine but newcomer Lewis MacDougall (Conor) gives an effortlessly outstanding performance.

Bayona previously directed The Impossible (2012) which starred Ewan McGregor and was the true story of a family caught up in the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The three boys in that cast Tom Holland (now Spiderman) Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast also put in wonderful performances. I wonder if Bayona has a special affinity for directing children.

"I think it's a question of how much energy you put in the work," he tells me. "For kids you feel less overwhelmed than when you work with a star. You start to play with them and do a lot of improvisations and try things that you would never dare to do with the adults. You learn so much from them and then you start to try things with the adults. I learn a lot when I work with kids and I love to work with kids because they are open to everything, it's a very interesting process."

Kids are people too - it seems so blindingly obvious yet is often forgotten by us grown ups. "The original idea for this film was to help kids deal with bullying and complicated emotions that they cannot process. The intention is to help kids process complicated emotions and ideas in... an accessible way." A Monster Calls will certainly facilitate opening up several dialogues between parents and children about life, death, bullying, violence and the fact that real life is not like a story.

The film is mainly live action but when the 'Monster' tells stories to Conor the stories are portrayed by beautiful water colour animation. The three stories are atypical of fairy tales in that there is no clear cut moral, the "happily ever after" sometimes comes at a price (as Conor's dad observes at one point the most people can hope for is "messily ever after",) that there isn't always a "bad guy" and sometimes there is no "good guy", that people can be good and bad at the same time and that sometimes, as the Monster tells Conor, "sometimes witches merit saving - quite often, you'd be surprised".

The beauty of the film is that it's not preachy or didactic. It is completely heart-breaking though and given the effect it had on a bunch of hardened film journalists; what effect would it have on a child? "There was a father who came to me and he had cancer," Bayona tells me.

"He wanted to see the film and then to show it to his son. I told my sister who is a psychologist and I said 'I don't know with his father sick with cancer how good is the idea of the kid watching the film?' And my sister told me 'Listen, there is nothing in the film that the kid doesn't think about every single day'." The director goes on to say "We are so overprotective of kids. And kids, they know about loneliness, about sadness, about rage, about self-blame - they have that every day in their lives. (This is) a film that tells them 'it's only a thought, don't worry about it as it's only a thought'."

When it came to casting the role of Conor, Bayona says: "We knew how important it was to get the right kid. We did massive auditions; we saw hundreds of kids. (Lewis) was so special and so different from the other ones. I remember we were using very emotional scenes - testing the range of the acting (skills of the children) and he didn't cry, he was reluctant to cry, he was more about rage and I thought that was more interesting. There was something so unique with Lewis that I knew from the very beginning he was very special."

I ask him why he cast Sigourney Weaver as the grandmother rather than a native English actor. "When I'm looking for an actor I like (someone) who can bring a lot of themselves with them and I think when you think of Sigourney Weaver you think of her persona as one of strength. And I thought we have to play with both - she's the grandmother for Conor but also the mother for Felicity."

Strangely since seeing the film my thoughts are never far from it. It is definitely a wonderful film and one that should be seen. But I still can't say that I 'enjoyed' it.

A Monster Calls will be in cinemas nationwide from January 1

'And kids, they know about loneliness, about sadness, about rage, about self-blame'

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