I tend to prefer movies made for grown-ups. And my friend Susan, a serious cineaste whose favorite films of 2016 include Neruda and Manchester by the Sea, can never be accused of opting for kiddie flicks. So when Susan suggested we check out A Monster Calls, I was surprised, to say the least. I’d seen the trailer, which looked visually intriguing. But the story (based on an acclaimed 2011 children’s novel) seemed all too familiar: a boy whose mother is dying of cancer finds solace through the sudden appearance of a fantasy figure. Somewhat like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, young Colin O’Malley experiences three visitations. In his case, it’s not ghosts who come to visit, but rather a huge and mysterious tree-creature with three stories to tell.
For their work on this novel, author Patrick Ness and illustrator Jim Kay won two of Britain’s most esteemed literary prizes. Ness went on to write the screenplay, which is perhaps why the film’s characterizations ring so true. Colin (played by Lewis MacDougall) is not the adorable kid of so many poignant children’s films. His unhappiness constantly plays out on his face, whether he’s getting ready for his day without parental help, ducking the sympathies of his teachers, dealing with schoolyard bullies, or fending off the horrific nightmares that plague his sleep. Felicity Jones is his mum, an artist who’s still vibrant but fading fast; Toby Kebbell is the dad (now busy with his new family in California) who just can’t connect with the son he’s left behind. Only Sigourney Weaver, as the strait-laced grandmother with whom Colin must come to terms, seems questionable casting. But highest kudos for Liam Neeson, whose unearthly basso voice contributes so much to the presence of the tree-monster.
The monster’s stories are really what set this film apart from other variations on this same theme. Vividly told through the use of gorgeous animation, the stories are by no means obvious in their message. A prince commits murder, and gets away with it; little girls die when a parson turns to a healer for help that does not come. The stories make Colin angry, and prompt him to commit violent acts of his own. Ultimately, though, the presence of the monster leads him to an important acknowledgment of his feelings about his mother’s condition. At the end of the film, a fraught sort of peace descends.
A Monster Calls bears an unusual credit: “from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd.” Dowd was a celebrated author of young adult books. She had every intention of writing this story, but a terminal bout with breast cancer defeated her plans. As Patrick Ness has put it, “She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time.” She died in 2007, at the painfully early age of 47. A Monster Calls is a strong testament to her imagination and her spirit.
Perhaps it’s because mortality is a very real part of this film’s legacy that it hit me so hard. I don’t duck movies that focus on the darker side of life, but it’s not often that I see a film that genuinely moves me to tears. This one assuredly did. By the final fadeout there was a lot of sniffling going on in the screening room, as the all-adult audience confronted the fact that the pain of loss is a fundamental part of our human inheritance. Still, I think we all felt hopeful that life remains worth living, thanks to the power of love to transcend darkness. A lesson, perhaps, for our turbulent times.