Children’s fiction is no stranger to painful emotional terrain — it’s no wonder so many of its heroes are orphans. Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is not an orphan, but the specter of death is near in J. A. Bayona’s adaptation of Patrick Ness’s novel A Monster Calls. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has found a new family across the globe in Los Angeles, and his cancer-stricken mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) only has so much time left. It is death’s slow gait that haunts Conor’s mind — like a thundercloud he can see from far away, he knows the storm is coming. But that does not make it any easier to bear. A Monster Calls is a testament to children’s imaginative endurance when the injustices of adulthood come knocking.
But before a monster calls, Conor must battle the tedium of prepubescence: cooking himself breakfast, doing his own laundry, avoiding schoolyard bullies, and dodging his stiff, unsmiling grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who he’s forced to live with when his mother’s condition worsens. He strikes a small, desperately lonely figure in the crowded hallways of his school, retreating into a universe of his own making — his sketchbook — when the world he’s given fails to keep him safe. At home, King Kong plays an old movie projector in his living room — as the ape falls from the Empire State Building, light flickers on Conor’s face, transfixed by the tragedy onscreen.
Then the clock strikes 12:07, and earth stirs to life. Embers glow beneath the grass, and the majestic yew tree outside his window rips its roots from the ground. Here we have our monster. Liam Neeson lends his mythical, rumbling gravitas to the tree, an Ent-like creature who tells Conor three fables in return for a fourth: Conor’s recurring nightmare, which contains a truth too terrifying for Conor to say aloud. The tree spins his first tale, whisking us into a world of gorgeous, painterly animation. The fairytale — a strange hybrid of Cinderella, Hamlet, and Oedipus Rex — tells the story of an unfairly maligned prince and a queen-witch who kills the king. But nothing is as it seems, as the tree reveals in the end: in fact it was the beloved prince, not the queen, who was a murderer, and the king merely died of old age. Conor hates the story — he wants to know who the good guys and the bad guys are. Most children’s literature deals in the simple currency of heroes and devils. The tree’s fable betrays the more banal reality that most people are something in between. For all its bald simplicity, it’s a lesson which works in a film that passes as a children’s movie — truth be told, it’s something adults need reminding of too.
Conor’s imagination is a wellspring of gothic fantasy. So immersive and persuasive are these watercolor tales that when Conor loses himself in his dreams of destruction, you can’t help but gasp when you discover the wreckage he’s caused in his grandmother’s perfectly polished parlor room. This is what makes A Monster Calls feel so special — most escapist fantasies are about kids leaving our world for another more magical and monstrous. In this film, the monstrous enters ours.
No one is equipped to deal with Lizzie’s cancer, including Conor’s formidable grandmother. Her character is unfortunately underdeveloped, and it’s never made clear why she and Conor have such a tense relationship. As for Felicity Jones, there’s not a lot of meat to her role, though Jones manages to bring vitality even when Lizzie is her most frail. But it is Conor’s story at heart, and appropriately, it is Lewis MacDougall’s performance that steals the show. In his deft hands, Conor is petulant and mature, quiet and tempestuous, refreshingly free of any cloying, irritating precocity. Despite the self-sufficiency foisted on him by circumstance, Conor is not wise beyond his years. He’s an ordinary 12-year-old — a ruin of hormones, fears, and hopes that characterize most children on the knife-edge of adolescence, a line that grows thinner and thinner the sicker his mother gets.
The third act will break your heart, but by then, A Monster Calls has given you all the tools to rebuild it. Within Conor’s nightmare is one of the monster’s most difficult lessons on grief: while it might be easier to apply a band-aid or ignore the pain altogether, true healing often requires prodding the wound. There’s an important lesson for adults as well: shielding children from the truth does them no favors. When a monster calls, let them answer.