“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” This line, amid the beautiful journey of a boy through his acceptance of grief, stands out among the rest in “A Monster Calls.” Our whole lives are built on stories, aren’t they? The ones we read, the stories we watch, those we listen to from others while eating dinner. And then there those stories we tell ourselves. Some are true and others are lies that are well-intentioned but often destructive. Because the nature of truth is a harder one to face even when we know it and want it more than anything else. But stories? Yeah, those we can do. “A Monster Calls” is one of those stories that explores the nature of grief, hard truths, and what we do in the in-between to try and get past it and cope. Simply told, J.A. Bayona’s drama is emotionally thorough and affecting.
Young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), who is often bullied at school, is coping with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) illness. Her health is constantly deteriorating and he can only watch as she promises that every new treatment will work better than the last. Besides that, he is also in denial and gives his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) a hard time about the possibility of going to live with her. His dad (Toby Kebbell) now lives in L.A. and can only stop in for short periods of time. On top of dealing with that, Conor has been having nightmares almost every night about his mother dying before he can save her. At 12:07 AM one night, he is visited by the monster, a thousands-year-old yew tree that sits in his backyard come to life. The monster (Liam Neeson) offers to tell Conor three tales, after which Conor must tell him a fourth. In Conor’s fourth tale, he must offer his truth. A truth he has acknowledged deep down, but one that doesn’t sit well with his conscience.
The monster seems to manifest itself from within Conor’s mind, coming to him in a time of utmost need. In essence, the monster is the visual representation of Conor’s nightmare and what he knows deep down, but can’t quite come to terms with. “A Monster Calls” is striking and the dialogue straight forward. It’s effective in a way that’s meant to pull at the heartstrings and face hidden truths at the same time. It’s a film that will stay with you beyond the credits. Visually and tonally, the film is dark. And although it stars a child, it might be a bit scary for younger children, but worthwhile to adults who can and will understand every emotion and lesson laid out throughout the story.
The monster itself is frightening to a degree and although the narrative aims at unraveling Conor’s truths and fears, I couldn’t help but think of all the lies I tell myself in order to get through some things. The constant “it’ll be ok” or “things will work out” dialogue we constantly tell ourselves. They’re not always lies, of course, but they’re words the human psyche needs to hear even when we subconsciously know differently. What truths are good, what are bad, etc. play out in the film and the narrative always goes back to the story aspect, linking the final confession to some of the lessons learned from the monster’s tales and what it has to do with Conor’s grief.
One of the most important parts of the film is the anger that comes out of Conor in doses. His repressed emotions manifest themselves in physical aggression and he does things (like destroying his grandma’s living room) expecting to be punished afterward and is surprised when he isn’t. “I deserve to be punished,” he tells the monster after his final confession because his truth is making him feel like a bad person and guilty. But it isn’t his only truth and that’s what ultimately makes the film so beautiful and moving. As people, we’re not as simple as just being labeled as good and bad. One truth can make us feel like a bad person while another can reaffirm other, better qualities about ourselves, like our capacity to love.
“A Monster Calls” tackles challenging topics with maturity and an open mind. The film is dark and often grim, but it’s never emotionally manipulative and takes its time exploring grief and building up to its finale so that the ending feels like a natural progression of what came before. The bullying aspect of the film feels a bit out of place at times and ultimately didn’t need to be in the story. Regardless of this, the story is emotionally hard-hitting, thoughtful, and lays the groundwork for gut-wrenching truths for Conor that it would be remiss not to think about our own as well. Bayona’s film is engaging, compelling, and filled with great performances. Not all films can take on the nature of grief in an impactful way that resonates, but “A Monster Calls” does so without condescension to the full scope of feelings attached to its topic, as well as our nature as human beings.
"A Monster Calls" is one of those stories that explores the nature of grief, hard truths, and what we do in the in-between to try and get past it and cope. Simply told, J.A. Bayona's drama is thorough and significantly affecting.