The Six Stages of Groot
All movie monsters are metaphorical, but few of them are quite so up-front about it as the title character of J. A. Bayona's A Monster Calls, a film which has already earned the coveted title of First Thing I Saw In A Theatre In 2017. This is not even the most distinguished plaudit to be heaped upon the movie, for it has already been described as 'the best film of the year' – though which year we're talking about is, perhaps intentionally, a little unclear (was it the year it was advertised in or the year it's being released in?). I'm not sure I would go that far myself but this is still an interesting and accomplished film.
This movie is based on a novel by Patrick Ness, who I was previously only really aware of as the head honcho of the online Doctor Who spin-off Class, about which perhaps the less said the better. Lewis MacDougall plays Conor O'Malley, a young boy with serious issues far beyond the fact that his name is arguably spelt wrong. His mother, played by Felicity Jones, is very seriously ill – yes, I know, it's getting to the point where Jones has less chance than Sean Bean of getting to the closing credits of a film – and Conor has to some extent been thrown on the mercies of his severe and distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, imported to help with that crucial US distribution, and deploying a pretty decent English accent) and largely-absent father (a rare performance by Toby Kebbell that remains untouched throughout by prosthetics or CGI).
What with also being viciously bullied at school, it's all getting a bit much for the lad, and his tribulations are accompanied by the manifestation of a huge monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who, it must be said, does look rather like Vin Diesel's character from a certain hugely popular Marvel sub-franchise. The monster insists that he has been summoned for a purpose, and that there are important tales to be told and deep secrets to be revealed in the days to come... (At no point does Sigourney Weaver appear in a fork-lift truck and start battling the monster, which I kind of guessed was never going to happen – it was still a tiny bit disappointing, though.)
I wasn't really aware of Bayona prior to seeing this film, though of course it turns out he's handled some fairly major releases, but while watching it I completely assumed he was an English director, so convincing is its depiction of the texture of British life and society. I was rather surprised, therefore, when the closing credits rolled and it turned out everyone in the crew had names like Enrique and Pedro: yup, this is an Anglo-Spanish co-production, partly even filmed in Spain (other bits filmed in my old haunt of Preston, somewhere not frequently mistaken for the Iberian peninsula). Perhaps this explains the script's occasional, very slightly distracting lapses into American English (Mom instead of Mum, for instance).
But, as I say, you don't really notice any of this while you're actually watching the film. This is the kind of film where it's more or less clear from the trailer exactly what's going to go on: a wrenching tale of how harsh and cruel life can be, counterpointed by a fantastical metaphor that serves to give the thing a bit of life and imagination and stop it from just being utterly soul-stampingly grim. And for the first part of the film, this was exactly what I was given, to the point where I got a bit restive and started to wonder just what all the critics had been getting so excited about.
Then a few things happened: the script got slightly more sophisticated than I'd expected – 'honestly, this is just a dream, can we get on with it,' says Conor at one point during a visit by the monster, proving he is just as clued up as the audience – while the animation used to realise the stories told by the monster is genuinely beautiful in its own right. And the story – well, I'm not sure that there's anything strikingly original about it, to be honest, but it's told with such skill and sincerity that it doesn't feel like something that you've seen before. (Well, perhaps with one exception – quite apart from the monster looking like Groot's dad, there's a key scene in this film which is almost a reprise of an equally important one in Guardians of the Galaxy.)
I think mostly it comes down to the performances, which are uniformly excellent. Lewis MacDougall gives a quite astonishingly assured and mature performance as Conor, in no way upstaged by playing scenes opposite heavyweights like Neeson or Weaver. (It was only after seeing the film that I learned the young actor suffered a close family bereavement shortly before making it.) Even Toby Kebbell, who I really assumed was only working so much because his head was a convenient shape for sticking those motion-capture ping pong balls to, gives a very solid turn.
In the end it all goes together to make a film which does pack an emotional wallop and tackles some serious themes and material in a manner which never feels too heavy or laborious at all. I found myself at distinct risk of having an emotional reaction in the cinema, and judging from the amount of stifled sobbing and sniffling coming from the seats around me, other people had been affected even more powerfully. Not the best film of 2016, if you ask me, but if it does turn out to be the best one of 2017 that wouldn't mean we're not in for a good year. An extremely fine and moving piece of work with some profound emotional truths at its heart.