It doesn't take a lot for a movie to make people cry, but when a PG-13 fantasy film about a boy and a tree monster turns a theater of film critics into sniffling, weeping messes, well, that's saying something. A Monster Calls premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, treating audiences to an early peek at one of the most beautifully heartbreaking films of the year, and now it's about to open nationwide.
The film was written by Patrick Ness, who also penned the novel of the same name, and directed by J.A. Bayona, who is best known for The Impossible. Newcomer Lewis MacDougall leads the film as Connor, a 12-year-old boy who is dealing with more than his fair share of issues both at home, where his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer, and at school, where he is being constantly bullied for being different. One night Connor is visited by a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who informs Connor that he has three stories to share before Connor will have to reveal his own truth to the monster.
The film has shades of many other beloved films. Connor's unlikely friendship with the monster is reminiscent of The Iron Giant, the way we see the monster's stories reminded me of the storytelling devices used in A Little Princess, the monster himself looks a lot like Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, and the list could go on. But A Monster Calls is far from a retread of films that have come before it. It has an edge and a realness that prevents it from going into an overly sappy territory while also perfectly blending in the just the right amount of whimsy and imagination.
The monster's tales slowly unfold as Connor's mother's illness progresses, and the themes are equally present in both parts of the story. Connor learns that most people can't be categorized as heroes or villains but have shades of both (like Connor's estranged father, who shows up to take Connor to an amusement park but can't be the dad Connor truly wants). He learns not to underestimate the healing powers of belief and hope. But the theme that had everyone wiping tears from their eyes is the universal message that life isn't always fair, that grieving is a part of life that nobody can escape, and that, as Connor's dad tells him, most people end up "messily ever after."
The movie hits theaters this month, and while it's not exactly uplifting holiday fare, it's the perfect movie to share with your family (and an important one for older kids to see), as long as you're not afraid to weep in front of them.