This is my big worry re A Monster Calls: people who don’t read reviews will hear only that this is a fantasy movie based on a young-adult novel and presume that it is a kiddie movie. And then they will freak out when they discover how dark and angry and bitter and oh-so un-fairy-tale it is, how it gave the little ones scary dreams and why didn’t someone tell them? And a movie that is important and beautiful and heartbreaking will be unfairly maligned.
So be warned: This is not The BFG. (It might be what The BFG could have been.) Yes, it’s a fairy tale, but more of the Grimm (and grim) sort: no happy ending, no heroes or villains, just a lot of hard truths about life and human nature. This is a film about fear and rage and abandonment and shame and grief, about how love can be painful, about the terror of learning that we exist at the mercy of time and fate. This is a fantasy overtly about fantasy as the place where we can examine the things too terrifying to face in the real world. This is fantasy verging into horror. The Monster who calls is Death, and his visits are nightmares.
Those visits may literally be nightmares for 12-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall: Pan), his way of processing the awful stuff he is coping with: the lingering wasting-away-by-cancer of his mother (Felicity Jones: Rogue One, Inferno); the absence of his father (Toby Kebbell: Ben-Hur, Warcraft), who flew away from England to live in Los Angeles after Conor’s parents’ divorce; the impending implementation of the plan for Conor to move into the unfriendly home of his icy grandmother (Sigourney Weaver: Ghostbusters, Chappie). On top of all that, he’s also regularly bullied at school. And then, one night, at precisely 12:07am, the ancient and slightly creepy yew tree in the churchyard Conor can see from his bedroom window uproots itself and saunters over to talk to him, not at all pleasantly. The Monster (the voice of Liam Neeson: The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Ted 2) is quite menacing, in fact, more akin to Marley’s ghost than a kindly Ent. And the Monster promises to return three more times to tell Conor stories that, it will transpire, will have some bearing on Conor’s situation, and not only because they will mirror Conor’s own tale. They will be dark fables, wretched and unexpected yet exquisitely perfect little nuggets of the human experience as untidy and unfair.
Director J.A. Bayona (The Impossible) renders the Monster’s stories as gorgeously animated minimovies, ominous ink and watercolor drawings come to life. They may spring from the mind of Conor, an imaginative boy who loves to draw, a talent passed on to him by his mom. Or they may exist in a realm of their own, and perhaps the Monster is indeed real, not an dreamed-up product of Conor’s misery. The wonder of A Monster Calls is that either interpretation is equally effective, because this is not a fantasy about worldbuilding and about convincing you that the impossible exists. It is a fantasy about our inner worlds, and about uncovering the impossible emotions within ourselves that we don’t want to give power to by admitting they exist. (In this way, A Monster Calls has a lot in common with The Babadook, another fantasy horror about coping with grief and death.) We often talk about grownup movies becoming appropriate for kids once they are able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, but A Monster Calls might be appropriate only for kids who have reached the age at which we understand that sometimes fantasy is more important than reality, that fiction can be more true than fact. (Anyone old enough to read and appreciate the multi-award-winning book by Patrick Ness upon which this is based is surely old enough for the movie; so, tweens and up, Conor’s age and up. Younger kids, not so much.)
But perhaps the most astonishing thing about A Monster Calls is that is explores an emotional reality that few of us would like to confront: the anger of children. Conor is a boy seething with rage, and it is startling to see it depicted onscreen even though he is wholly justified in it. (Young MacDougall is very convincing and completely harrowing indulging Conor’s fury.) Some of Conor’s story is about him realizing that he’s not the only one whose feelings matter. But this film is also an unsettling reminder that our popular culture too often ignores the darker emotions of children, that we grownups sometimes pretend that children’s emotions don’t matter (or, worse, don’t exist). The Monster is also anger. The Monster is also Conor. But just as the tree Monster is actually not a brute and the death Monster is not avoidable, Conor and his anger are not things that can be ignored, nor should they be. The anger of children is authentic and should be acknowledged by the rest of us.
I love this movie so much. I sobbed harder through its finale than I have in a long time at a movie, at how wise and perceptive it is about what it means to be brave and how difficult it can be to admit what you’re feeling. I love how it embraces the power of stories — such as the ones the Monster tells Conor — as “wild creatures” that somehow simultaneously challenge us and tame us. With precisely the opposite of an easy and happy ending, A Monster Calls is immensely satisfying. Movies exist for movies like this one.
viewed during the 60th BFI London Film Festival