There are only so many things a 12-year-old kid can put up with: Bullies, a dad who lives across the pond, a stern and unfortunately local grandmother. So when he has to watch his beloved mum slowly die of cancer, too, he needs an outlet for his frustration and despair.
He needs to start breaking stuff.
J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls tells the story of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), an English schoolboy who’s been thrust into the role of caregiver when his mother (Felicity Jones) becomes nearly bedridden. He makes himself meals, fetches Mum’s medicine, and dutifully goes to school, where he’s routinely harassed by the class thug and pitied by teachers.
To escape, Conor draws, with the view from his bedroom window—a painterly yet foreboding sight of a church, its cemetery, and a grand yew tree in the distance—being his go-to subject. The spot also pops up in his daily nightmares, with Conor struggling to hang on to his mother as the church and ground beneath them collapse.
One night, though, things in his room suddenly go all Poltergeist, including a marker that defiantly rolls off his desk and toward his window. When he looks outside, that yew tree morphs into a knotted, embers-sparking monster (Liam Neeson) who grabs Conor and, um, barks: “Why don’t you run, Conor O’Malley? Why don’t you run for your mother?” The monster then informs him that he will be telling the boy three stories, and when he’s done, Conor will tell him a fourth, which will be “the truth, this truth that you hide.”
Adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel, A Monster Calls is a unique and insightful portrayal of how people process grief. The monster is both frightening and benevolent; if nothing else, it’s something that Conor can scream at about his powerlessness over the future. His mother gives him false hope, his father (Toby Kebbell) visits but soon returns to his new family in L.A., his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, whose accent waxes and wanes) is an ice queen whom Conor is sent to stay with. When she leaves him alone one night with a warning not to touch anything, he proceeds to touch everything.
Such levity, though spare, keeps the film grounded when it could have easily turned into a weepfest. The humor is mostly confined to interactions between Conor and the monster, such as when Conor tells it, “I don’t need a tale. I need a bus ticket for my grandma.” After one of the three stories—all of which are intricately animated and sometimes accented with blood—the monster asks Conor what he should destroy in the milieu they’re occupying, calling the act “most satisfying.” Conor responds enthusiastically and is eventually encouraged to participate; when the surrealism of the scene ends, he finds himself back in his grandmother’s wrecked living room.
Bayona (The Impossible) imbues A Monster Calls with a magical tone even when the monster isn’t present. Besides the relentlessly dark yet fairy-tale-like atmosphere, the director shoots closeups of Conor’s pencil gliding across paper, intimating the enchantment of creativity. There are frequent references to fables, such as when Conor makes a tiny crown out of pencil shavings for the queen he’s drawing or when he asks his father, “So you didn’t get happily ever after?” in reference to Dad’s broken relationship with Conor’s mother.
Ultimately, though, the lessons here are, like the monster said, about truth—the truth of reality, delivered ironically via the fantastical. The monster tells Conor that there’s not always a good guy and a bad guy in any given situation, that it takes belief to heal, that losing his mother will be “more than hard” but that Conor will get through it. It forces Conor to shout out the truth he’s been hiding, one that’s an apparent contradiction, and gives him examples of other contradictions he may encounter in life. Following its own message, the film ends abruptly—after all of Conor’s wake-up calls, any closing that resembled a “happily ever after” would have been hypocritical.
A Monster Calls opens Friday in theaters everywhere.