Tearjerkers are back in theaters this winter, chasing your money and your hearts. With the Weinstein company’s Lion and J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, we find two stories of familial separation, each of which miss their mark when approaching their subject matter.
A Monster Calls (2016)
Departing from his more mature stories like del Toro produced The Orphanage and beautifully acted, graphically injured 2004 tsunami film The Impossible, J.A. Bayona directs Patrick Ness’s children’s book A Monster Calls, adapted by the author. The story of a boy named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) who is visited by a storytelling tree monster while his mother’s (Felicity Jones) health dwindles. His future in the air from either staying with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) or joining his father (Toby Kebbell) in America, but his most pressing concern are the moral tales leading to his obligation to face his nightmares. As his family’s difficulties increase, Conor’s reliance on the monster as protector and instructor expands.
Featuring cartoonish effects interspersed with brilliant animated sequences illustrating moral quandaries, A Monster Calls is a mixed bag. Where Sigourney Weaver’s accent is suspect, she can be sympathized with; her relationships with family is strained but she appears to be seeking amends. She is just trying to do what she feels is right. Felicity Jones is a heartbreaking woman battling with leaving her son. Her pain is felt more closely than that of Conor (MacDougall is a capable as grieving son but never engrossing), but her minimal screen time limits the picture. The emotional impact builds with each appearance of the monster, but the poor timing lets those welling tears diminish. If you’re seeking emotional distress that will tear out your heart while warming with authenticity, watch Other People. The trailer and the combined 15 minutes of animation would have sufficed on this movie.
Just because a movie is well made does not equate an enjoyable experience nor does it deserve my tears. In Lion, the latest Weinstein Co release tackling awards season, a young boy is separated from his brother during an excursion seeking work to serve his underfed family. Years later after surviving on the streets of Calcutta and being adopted by a family in Tasmania, grown up Saroo seeks the family lost in India in order to revitalize his cultural heritage.
A desire to know one’s roots is important. However, the Google Maps searching and bitchy behavior in Dev Patel’s role left me cold. Mean to his adoptive brother, ignores the sacrifices and challenges of his family, leaves his work and his girlfriend to chase an obsession. It has the coming-of-age selfishness that turned me off from The Edge of Seventeen. The acting was good, particularly Nicole Kidman, owning a devasting, revealing monologue; a movie about her journey would have been more fulfilling. Young Saroo, played by tiny newcomer Sunny Pawar, is an achievement in directing for Garth Davis, fortifying a solid child performance in a rapidly changing environment. Dev Patel does what he can with the role, but in the end, he’s quite unpleasant. He’s also the lead, so his eventual placement in supporting tomorrow (along with Hugh Grant) just ruins the category for such a strong year. As usual, actresses > actors.
The movie is well made, particularly the score by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann and the cinematography of Greig Fraser, always in just the right lighting. It’s just a shame that the tear mining was not handed over for a more inspiring narrative.