Irish author Siobhan Dowd wanted to write about the loss of a loved one and how such a loss affects those left behind. In a bitter twist of irony, she died of cancer before she could even begin to write her book. All she had were her characters and a couple of notes.
Patrick Ness, best selling author of the Chaos Walking series, never met Dowd, but he was entrusted with the task of bringing her story to life. The book won widespread acclaim. Focus Features snatched up the film rights and even hired Ness as the screenwriter. J. A. Bayona, a Spanish director best known for his films The Orphanage and The Impossible, signed on to direct.
Newcomer Lewis MacDougall stars as Conor O’ Malley, a thirteen year old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. His mother assures him that the treatments are working, despite her worsening health. Conor moves in with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), an overbearing well-to-do woman. At school he has pushed away his friends, preferring solitude over being pitied because of his mother’s illness. The only person who seems to pay him any attention is Harry, the school bully.
It’s during this unhappy time in his life that something truly strange happens. Around 12:07 each night, a massive yew tree contorts itself into the shape of a Monster (Liam Neeson) that comes to Conor’s window and offers to tell Conor three stories. In exchange, Conor must in turn tell the Monster his own story. A true story about his life.
As the Monster tells his stories to Conor, they are transported to a bright, wondrous landscapes to watch the tales unfold in real time. The visual effects take on an unearthly glow, giving the tales a simplistic feel that makes the audience feel like they are in a storybook.
Neeson’s elegant, commanding voice lends a sense of gravitas to the Monster, a character that the audience is meant to both fear and sympathize with at different points in the film. He’s not an imaginary friend meant to instill a sense of wonder in his young charge. He is a means by which Conor can come to terms with the reality that his mother will die. And yet, he is not cruel, nor indifferent to the boy.
MacDougall manages to hold his own with the all-star cast that surrounds him. If his relationships with Weaver, Jones and Neeson had felt forced in anyway, it would have greatly damaged the credibility of the story, ruining the film in the process. That’s a great deal of pressure, but the young actor proves he is up to the task.
The film is full of such well rounded performances. In one of the more powerful scenes of the film, the Monster destroys Conor’s grandmother’s pristine sitting room that Conor is forbidden to enter. Conor takes joy in the destruction until the Monster abruptly vanishes, leaving Conor alone in the leveled sitting room just as his grandmother returns from a night at the hospital. Rather than being angry, Weaver joins in on the destruction, allowing the anger she feels over her daughter’s cancer to be unleashed. Everyone, even adults who seem so secure in their lives, need a release for their emotions.
The major theme of the film is death, and how letting go of the people you love is not wrong, but necessary for a person’s emotional health. It’s alright to be angry, just so long as one doesn’t hold on to that anger for the rest of their life.As a culture we don’t talk about death as often as we should. It’s the most universal experience we all share, yet, we are too uncomfortable with the subject to speak of it honestly and openly. That is why most audiences will probably stay away from this film. Most of us just want to take our children to mindless cartoons with cheerful musical numbers, rather than have a conversation about mortality and how it is okay, normal in fact, to be angry when you are hurting. In time, A Monster Calls will be appreciated for the wonderful film it truly is, and it’ll find a wider audience. For now, there are those of us who appreciate it in the here and now. There are some of us who could have used a film like this when we were young, angry and unsure of what to do with our emotions. But now A Monster Calls has taught us that “it’s okay that you’re angry … And if you need to break things, by God you break them.”
A Monster Calls opened in limited release on December 23 and comes out in wide release on January 6.
Watch the trailer: