A Monster Calls, a Lion Roars Back

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Boyhood should be filled with running and playing and studying and dreaming. It should not be filled with nightmares about unspeakable loss. Nevertheless, two excellent films released this month address that theme, each of them helmed by outstanding young actors and presented with exquisite cinematography. Although you would have to be emotionally empty to avoid a tearful sniffle at the boys’ plights, both films manage to avoid maudlin or gratuitous melodrama. Each is surprisingly uplifting, despite its dark themes.

A Monster Calls, set in England but filmed largely by a Spanish crew, follows the story of young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who attends a boys’ school where he is routinely pummeled by a passionless bully much larger than he. Conor barely notices the punches to his face, however, because life has already served him a punch in the gut — his Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying from cancer. So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches. (More about the monster in a moment.) This story could only have been told in England, where maintaining a stiff upper lip (while developing an ulcer) is taught to perfection in boarding school.

The only person he unleashes on is his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he will have to live once the unspoken ending has happened. Meanwhile, Grandma is facing the loss of her daughter with the same British stoicism, and expresses her need for control by expecting Conor to live in her house without touching anything. Conor eyes her with distrust and is vocal about not wanting to go with her. He daydreams about moving to the United States to live with his Dad (Toby Kebbell) instead.

So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches.

Conor is stoic on the outside, but on the inside he is raging. The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, is a metaphor for the rage he feels, and also for the monstrous circumstance that is attacking him. The monster is a gigantic tree-like creation with fiery eyes and thunderous voice, yet he seems more like a mythological guide than a terror. He says to Conor, “First I will tell you three stories, and then you will tell me the fourth.” Of Conor’s own story he tells us, “it begins with a boy too old to be a kid, and too young to be a man.”

The film has a strong sense of magical realism. Cinematographer Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game, The Impossible) and set decorator Pilar Revuelta contribute to this sense through skillful lighting, camera angles, prop dressing, and special effects. The score by Fernando Velasquez and Neeson’s powerful yet comforting voice are also important to the tone of the film.

Of course, the monster’s purpose is to help Conor express his rage and prepare for his grief. British stoicism be damned — rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child. Somehow Conor and his grandmother will have to come to grips with both, and find a way to do it together.

Another film steeped in local culture and unbearable loss is Lion, about an even younger boy. Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is perhaps five years old when he inadvertently boards an empty train and travels over 1,000 miles to Calcutta before he can get off. Alone, frightened, unable to speak Bengali or even identify his mother by any name but “Mum,” he ends up on the streets with other abandoned children. Worse than facing the Faganesque threat of becoming petty thieves, these children are exposed to the threat of being sold into sexual slavery.

Rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child.

Saroo manages to escape that fate and eventually is adopted by a couple in Australia. But the thought of his mother and siblings grieving over his disappearance continues to haunt him until, with the blessing of his adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman), he returns to India to find his roots.

It’s a simple story made wonderful by the acting of Sunny Pawar, who beat out 2,000 other young hopefuls for the part and didn’t even speak English when he began filming (which may have contributed to the uncanny portrayal of his character’s sense of confusion and loss in Calcutta). In early scenes he makes tangible the bond he shares with his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and his Mum (Priyanka Bose), as he proudly shows that he can work and contribute to the family table. One gets the sense that the cinematographer simply followed him around the hills of west India and the streets of Calcutta with a camera and caught him doing what he naturally would do. Greig Fraser’s soaring landscapes and cluttered, colorful cities are magnificent as well.

Dev Patel, best known for his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire, in which he had the same job — portraying the older version of a young main character — steps into Act II of Lion with similar natural skill. He demonstrates the complex emotional confusion experienced by an adoptee old enough to remember his previous life and family, profoundly appreciative of his new parents, yet not completely at home in either location. He doesn’t quite know how to interact with his adoptive brother, who also joined the family as an older child; he plays cricket and surfs, but doesn’t know how to scoop curry with naan. He becomes isolated and withdrawn, confused by a combination of grief and guilt, until he is able to return to India and complete his search.

“Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief.

The film is about more than an orphaned boy’s search for his hometown; it touches on deep issues of child trafficking, international adoption, cultural identity negation, emotional handicap, and what it means to be a family.

Lion is one of those “stranger than fiction” stories that would never have been greenlighted if it weren’t true. “Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief. Yet the film is based on A Long Way Home, the autobiography of Saroo Brierley, who also served as co-scriptwriter of the film. From interviews I’ve seen with Brierley and then from watching the film, I would say it’s as true as he can make it. The acting is true too — vulnerable and heartbreaking, light as a bird and strong as a lion.

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