A Monster Calls isn’t quite what you think.
It hits you right in the tree-shaped feels.
Forget Hunger Games or Divergent — the best YA stories are coming out of a British writer called Patrick Ness. His Chaos Walking trilogy is some of the most inventive, and most memorable and affecting, science fiction I’ve read in years. Everyone should give The Knife of Never Letting Go a read.
Ness won the Carnegie Medal two years in a row for Monsters of Men (the last in the Chaos Walking Trilogy) and then for a novel called A Monster Calls. Which I haven’t read, but I’ve now seen the movie at the New Zealand International Film Festival.
A Monster Calls is about a young English lad named Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall). His mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from a terminal illness never specified, but it seems to be cancer. He’s visited by a towering monster made out of a tree (voiced by Liam Neeson). The monster says that he will tell Connor three stories, at which point Connor will have to tell him a fourth story. The monster appears the next night at 12:07.
Each of the stories appear like fairy tales on the surface, but they’re all morally ambiguous. The first is about a king who marries a witch queen. The king dies, and the king’s grandson is too young to take the throne, so the queen does. The prince does something reprehensible to get to the throne. The second is about an apothecary who butts heads with a local parson. The parson attempts to shut down the apothecary’s business, but when the parson’s daughters fall sick, he comes to the apothecary for help. And the third story… well, that would be spoiler territory.
While all of this is going on, Connor is struggling to deal with the reality of his mother’s illness. Slowly, the real world and fantasy world start to cross over. It seems like the fantasy world is less of an escape, and more like a lesson.
In classic Patrick Ness fashion, A Monster Calls doesn’t sugarcoat anything. This is a serious, emotional topic. Perhaps the most emotional there is — a child dealing with the loss of a parent. Over the course of the film, we learn that the monster is a kind of coping mechanism. But it isn’t a way to escape reality. Rather, it’s a way to learn to confront reality. That’s what makes A Monster Calls such an affecting movie.
And that reality is well grounded by the cast. Everyone gives genuine performances, with a special shoutout to Felicity Jones as a sick woman doing her darnedest to pretend not to be. And Sigourney Weaver, who plays a grandmother who is strict to an almost Roald Dahl level, but is fundamentally a good person. As we learn from the monster’s first story, people are complicated creatures.
Lewis MacDougall has a hard job playing a young kid who is experiencing — and also bottling up — grief. He comes across incredibly genuine. The cherry on top of the performances is Liam Neeson as the monster. I’d love to see more of this kind of Neeson rather than the Taken kind.
He’s supported with some incredible CGI work for the monster, as well as lovely watercolour-style artwork for the monster’s stories. I hope that A Monster Calls doesn’t get lost in the aether of genre movies, because it’s worth a watch by everyone.