A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls ★★★★★

This review is part of a series featuring the films of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.

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

As a kid, I had The Neverending Story as the film that represented movie magic and the power and importance of storytelling. That's a movie I've seen dozens of times. The climax of that film is based on the premise that words have great power: power to create and to destroy, to rebuild and to rift.

A Monster Calls could be that movie for a generation of kids growing up now. It similarly hinges on a the power of words and the inevitability of a story. A monster, apparently summoned from a nearby yew tree, comes in the night to young Connor O'Malley and tells him Connor will get three stories, true stories, in exchange for one: the truth of the nightmare Connor dreams. The truth is that Connor's mother is dying of cancer. We can see that clearly, even if he can't admit it. But the truth he must confront is even more surprising, complicated, and deeply human than that.

Thomas King said "There are no truths; only stories." Connor doesn't want stories, he wants a miracle. But, as the monster reminds him, stories are all we have. The stories we tell are what keep us going, and they are all we have, even when they don't suffice. We, like Connor's mother, tell stories (fictions) to protect those we love. But it's complicated. Connor quickly learns that there aren't always heroes and villains, and real life doesn't always make sense.

The visual language of the film is one of the most captivating I've seen, a live action fable with a motion-capture monster (voiced brilliantly by Liam Neeson) whose storytelling sequences, each rendered in a different stunning animation style, feel set up as standard fairy tales but come to unexpected endings with the hard truths of life's complexities. While the storytelling is definitely didactic (it's a children's movie after all), it's never simplistic.

This is a children's movie, about a child and (unlike Pan's Labyrinth to whom it owes a great debt) for children. However, like the monster himself, the film is frightening and dangerous, because the truths it forces out are frightening and dangerous. Loss is an inevitable and invaluable part of growing up. It is the part of humanity that forces us to reconcile the ability to feel wholly unable to continue existing yet still to be able to do so.

A Monster Calls reminds me a lot of another film that tackles storytelling and coming-of-age: Ang Lee's Life of Pi. Both films are bleak in their acknowledgement of life's cruelty yet undeniably human in their belief in a hopeful future. As human as loss is, so is survival.

A Monster Calls is a masterpiece, and far and away my favourite film of 2016 so far.

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