(US/Spain - 2016)
Directed by J.A. Bayona. Written by Patrick Ness. Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Toby Kebbell, Geraldine Chaplin, James Melville, Ben Moor, Dominic Boyle, Oliver Steer. (PG-13, 108 mins)
Acclaimed Spanish filmmaker and Guillermo del Toro protege J.A. Bayona (THE ORPHANAGE, THE IMPOSSIBLE) crafts his first genuine masterpiece with A MONSTER CALLS, adapted by Patrick Ness from his 2011 novel. The book came from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, who planned to write it herself but only got as far as outlining the project before succumbing to terminal breast cancer in 2007, a battle that inspired the story. Dowd's editor passed her notes on to Ness, who agreed to write the novel. As a director, Bayona seems more akin to classic-era Spielberg than del Toro (Bayona is currently at work on the next JURASSIC WORLD movie, due in summer 2018), demonstrating a gift for getting natural performances out of young and inexperienced actors. He coaxes a star-making from young Lewis MacDougall (PAN) as Conor O'Malley, a lonely 12-year-old boy in a small British town trying to cope with the slow decline of his terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones). Treatment after treatment doesn't work, and Conor has no one to turn to--his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is cold and stand-offish, and his father (Toby Kebbell) split several years ago and has since started a new family in Los Angeles ("You could come for Christmas and meet your sister," he tells Conor, who snaps "Half-sister"). He's bullied on a daily basis at school by Harry (James Melville) and spends his time sketching and drawing, a passion he inherited from his mother, who wanted to go to art school but put it on the backburner when she became pregnant with him. Conor is plagued by recurring nightmares in which he's clinging to his mother as she dangles over a bottomless hole that's opened up, always followed at 12:07 am by an ancient yew tree in the cemetery behind their home coming to life.