Stories and art are powerful ways of coping with pain, as A Monster Calls portrays in heartbreaking detail.
Denial can be a powerful, sometimes necessary way to get through a life that either isn’t going as planned or seems outright unbearable. To some extent, La La Land deals with this theme, with the main characters Sebastian and Mia not being entirely aware of the sacrifices that need to be made in order to achieve their dreams.
A Monster Calls goes far deeper with that, taking a much darker turn. For a child, creating his or her own world, imagining a much-needed friend, might be a key to survival. That’s the situation young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) finds himself in, with a mother (Felicity Jones) suffering from a terminal illness, a looming future with an uptight grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) he despises, an irresponsible father (Toby Kebbell) who lives in another country, and a school life that provides more adversity and pain, rather than any sort of solace.
It’s a heartbreaking story. No kid should have to live through the slow death of a parent before he’s even a teenager. Not even an adult is ready to watch a loved one deteriorate, becoming more weak and feeble, to the point at which death is inevitable. Whether Conor’s mother knows that she’s going to die or not (her reluctance to take medication would seem to imply so), she tries to keep her son from accepting that fate. But Conor has already grown up far more than someone else his age should have to. Because his mother is virtually bedridden, he has to take care of himself. He gets himself ready for school, he cooks and does the laundry, he helps his mother when she needs aid.
Is it any wonder that Conor retreats into his sketchbook and imagination when it all becomes too much to bear? Like his mother, Conor is an artist. Pencils, ink and watercolor paint become the friends who keep him company. They help him get through the night, they provide him with an escape from an existence that has become too painful to confront. But even Conor doesn’t realize just how deeply his mind needs to go to truly find some sanctuary, some outlet for his rage and pain.
Every night just after midnight (at 12:07 a.m., to be exact), Conor experiences the same nightmare. The church he can see from his window, a place which should provide some comfort for him and his mother, begins to crumble. The ground beneath and surrounding the church tears apart and falls deep into the earth. His mother stands outside the church, but falls into a crevasse. She’s hanging on by her fingertips. Only Conor can save her. He grabs hold of her hand. But he can never pull her back up before he loses his grip and loses his mother.
The allegory of Conor’s nightmare is painfully apparent. His life is going to fall apart. He’s going to lose his mother, and there’s nothing he can do to save her. But eventually, the nightmare becomes more than just something Conor experiences every night. The landscape begins to reach out and interact with him, particularly a giant yew tree that has probably been a part of the churchyard and cemetery for centuries, rustles, rumbles, and shakes free from its roots. The tree morphs into a humanoid form, powered by something otherworldly — maybe something hellish, given the fire that seems to be its inner lifeforce — and walks down the hill toward Conor’s house.
The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson, who’s both fearsome and parental with his low growl) doesn’t have a name, but it most certainly has a purpose. Is it to terrorize Conor? Well, perhaps to an extent. The Monster isn’t there to necessarily provide comfort. If so, it would probably take a friendlier, less scary form. No, the tree has come to terrifying life to get Conor to confront his demons, to show him through fables and stories that he’s not alone in his struggles and that overcoming life’s adversities — no matter how painful — can be heroic.
Conor’s new companion says he will tell Conor three stories, each of which can be interpreted in some manner as an allegory for what Conor is going through. The first deals with a witch, whom everyone believes is there to destroy the kingdom. The second concerns an apothecary who can concoct a cure for a priest’s sickly children, but refuses to do so because the priest originally prevented him from cutting down a yew tree which could yield new medicines. And the third is a tale of a man who was invisible, to whom everyone acted like he wasn’t there. No one knows what he’s going through.
But there is a catch to telling the three stories for Conor. The Monster tells him that he will have to tell the fourth story, and that will involve confronting his nightmare to tell the truth behind it. Though the answer to that question seems obvious, that Conor feels he cannot save his dying mother, the truth turns out to be more complex — especially for a child who might not entirely understand what it means until he truly faces reality — and is arguably the most touching aspect of the story.
The best fables, fairy tales and folk legends often result from storytellers attempting to convey valuable lessons and harsh truths through something fantastical. Yet the narrative, themes and characters need to be enduring enough to resonate and continue being told throughout decades and centuries. Sometimes, such stories are the only way a mind can cope with reality, especially if that mind belongs to a child forced to grow up much sooner than should be allowed. Conor’s life is a difficult one, and he largely has to get through it alone. Eventually, he learns that he’s not as alone as he thinks he is. Tragedy has a strange way of bringing people together and of providing clarity to what may have seemed confusing.
Above all, Conor has his art, a gift passed to him through his mother. A Monster Calls is about the power of folktales and art to create something bigger than ourselves, to provide a means of escape, and a way of coping when life becomes too difficult. To some, that might be a form of denial. Why is Conor talking to monsters and imagining the destruction of old houses when far more serious events are occurring all around him? But his creations are exactly what he needs. His art is an outlet for his pain, a way of filling the void left by those who have abandoned him, his preferred method of lashing out at those who oppress and bully him. (That last part is one of the most satisfying scenes of the movie, an outcome that you can’t help but root for, especially if it applies to any personal experiences.)
Putting a movie on the shoulders of a child actor is a difficult proposition, one that can ruin a film if the young man or woman isn’t up to the task of carrying a story. But Lewis MacDougall is outstanding as Conor, and should draw some Academy Award consideration, depending on how competitive the Best Actor category turns out to be. That kid puts himself through the emotional ringer for his role and it’s entirely believable. Sometimes, it’s too believable. You just want to give him a hug. It surely helped that director J.A. Bayona has shown a talent for working with young actors in his previous films The Orphanage and The Impossible (notably Tom Holland, who’s going to be our next Spider-Man). That will surely help him yet again when he directs a sequel to Jurassic World, which is slated as his next project.
A Monster Calls will absolutely break your heart, but there is solace in its sadness, especially if there was ever a story, talent or hobby through which you bonded with a parent. Mothers and fathers have a way of passing things on to their children, whether everyone involved realizes it or not. Those are the bonds which are timeless, and this movie has an exceptional way of reminding us of that. Go see this movie, then call your mother afterwards. Or go see it with your mother. When’s the last time you took her to a movie? Even if she doesn’t like monsters, tell her there’s a point to it all.