The standards of American culture wouldn’t allow J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls to be considered a family film. Generally speaking, it’s assumed that our younger audiences, particularly adolescents, aren’t prepared for films about life and humanity unless they’re sanitized to some degree. The other assumption is that they wouldn’t be interested in such films at all, and so they’re instead condescendingly peddled nothing but comic book adaptations and action extravaganzas.
While it’s true that A Monster Calls is a mature work that’s painfully heart-wrenching, the lessons it teaches are so powerful and fundamentally true that, in my opinion, adolescent audiences would benefit greatly from seeing it.
By all outward appearances, it’s another effects-laden fantasy – in this case, the story of a boy who befriends a giant creature made of tree bark, branches, twigs, and fire. Don’t let the poster or the trailers give you the wrong impression; beneath the simplicity of enchanting fairy tale imagery lies a deeply touching, refreshingly profound, unflinchingly empathetic examination of getting through life’s trials and tribulations. The characters aren’t separated into the dichotomies of good and bad, but instead revealed as the complicated human beings they actually are. Most strikingly, it shows tremendous insight into the different ways people process pain, anger, hurt, frustration, and sadness.
Adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel (itself based on an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd), it tells the story of a twelve-year-old English boy named Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) and his physical and psychological struggles; if it weren’t enough that he has to process a divorced father (Toby Kebbell) living with a new family in Los Angeles, a stern and emotionally distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and daily beatings by a group of school bullies, he also has great difficulty coping with the fact that his beloved mother (Felicity Jones) is gradually succumbing to a terminal illness, presumably cancer.
He’s also plagued with a recurring nightmare in which the church graveyard visible from his bedroom window cracks into an open fissure, and he frantically tries to prevent his mother from falling in. He awakens at precisely the same time, 12:07 am. As it turns out, this is the same time when he’s eventually approached by an unnamed tree monster (a CGI creation voiced in deep rumbles by Liam Neeson), who of course is assumed to be either a hallucination or an extension of the dream. Whether or not he’s either of those things or a genuine otherworldly creature is entirely beside the point; through his periodic experiences with the monster, regardless of whether they’re real or imagined, Conor learns valuable life lessons and hard truths, not just about other people but himself as well.
The monster conveys the lessons through living watercolor-and-ink fairy tales, visually spectacular sequences that look every bit like the watercolor-and-ink illustrations Conor is known for making. The fairy tales are told simplistically, and yet they’re filled with complicated characters that, in ways both good and bad, aren’t what they seem. It’s not that Conor is supposed to like or dislike any of them, but rather that he needs to recognize that people rarely if ever can be placed into such extremes as good or bad. A murderer can be a great king. A holy medicine man, who has spent his life helping the sick, can be cruel and vindictive.
How does this relate to Conor? Like everyone else in the world, he’s just as complicated. He can hate being ignored even more than being bullied, because as unpleasant as it sounds, bullying is a form of acknowledgment. He can vent his anger at his grandmother in the most personal of ways, despite the fact that she too is processing the impending loss of a loved one. And yes, he can even long for a release from the pain of his mother’s failing health, even though the thought of letting her go wracks him with guilt. The genius of A Monster Calls is that, even through the filter of fantasy and fairy tales, it tells a story so real, so grounded, so deeply understanding of how people actually are. This is one of the year’s best films.