When Patrick Ness’ young adult novel “A Monster Calls” made it into print in 2011, the book’s publisher recommended it for ages 12 and up. That was a good call, because the story’s themes – of a boy coping with the impending death of his mother, being bullied, and living in denial – would be pretty intense for younger readers.
The same goes with the film, and it’s apparent from the opening frames, which turn out to be a terrifying nightmare, a recurrent one, mind you, suffered by 12-year-old Conor (newcomer Lewis MacDougall). He’s a smart, artistically gifted loner, a mature lad who has double trouble at school, both in areas of concentrating on studies and of trying (but usually failing) to avoid being beaten up by a vicious classmate.
But the troubles are worse at the home he shares with his mom (Felicity Jones) in the isolated countryside of England. Dad left years before, resettling in America with a new family. And though his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) lives nearby and tries to be helpful, it’s Conor who’s mostly responsible for doing the household chores and caring for his cancer-ridden mom in between her visits to the hospital.
Yet he perseveres, constantly staying up past midnight, when all is quiet and he can concentrate on making detailed pencil drawings, and once in awhile staring out the window at the big old yew tree on their property. It’s on one of those nights, at precisely 12:07, that Conor hears his name being called out in a low rumble. But before he can make any sense out of the sounds, that tree, suddenly glowing from within, turns into something resembling a human figure – make that a monster – then uproots itself, lumbers thunderously over to the house, and informs Conor, in the deep, rich voice of Liam Neeson, that he must tell him about his nightmares.
A cut to the next morning has his pushy, no-nonsense grandma coming by with the news that even though Conor doesn’t really like her, he’ll soon be coming to live with her.
So, we’ve got a film with all sorts of different dynamics going on: Conor’s total denial that anything is wrong with his loving and obviously dying mom; Conor’s shaky relationship with his grandmother; the grandmother’s difficulty dealing with what will soon be the loss of her daughter and trying to figure out how to even speak civilly with Conor; Conor’s problems at school; Conor’s long-simmering anger at his dad for leaving; and, oh yes, the tree. The tree becomes a regular nightly visitor, always appearing at 12:07, making it clear that it’s going to tell three stories to Conor, and that Conor must then tell one back to the tree, one that will cause him to face up to that nightmare in the opening scene.
As a film with messages to share, “A Monster Calls” can be a little confusing. The tree does indeed tell three stories, each of which, narrated by Neeson, comes vibrantly to life in beautiful, highly stylistic animation. Awful things happen in them, and though their meanings aren’t crystal clear, they do serve on some level as philosophical and ethical lessons for Conor.
Part of the film’s magic occurs when a couple of the stories, told to Conor in his unstable frame of mind, start to cross over into his real world. Those scenes lean toward being loud and devastating for viewers (as they are for Conor). But it’s the quietly distressing ones, concerning his mom (terrifically acted by MacDougall and Jones), that are even more powerful.
This is a very moving film experience that starts as an edgy fairy tale and evolves into a parable about telling the truth, being able to let go, and dealing with whatever life throws our way.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
A MONSTER CALLS
Written by Patrick Ness; directed by J.A. Bayona
With Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson