Grief and bereavement are inescapable conditions. Those of us who have not felt them yet soon enough will. We all find various ways to cope with these emotions, and time eventually dulls their pain. J. A. Bayona’s new film, A Monster Calls, is a testament to the power of art to move beyond personal tragedy.
The film follows Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), a school-aged boy “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man.” He’s tormented by dreams set in a church graveyard, where the ground begins to collapse around him into a bottomless pit. He grasps someone’s hand, trying to save them from falling. And then he wakes up. Later we see the person in danger in his dreams is his own mother (Felicity Jones). She’s in the middle of cancer treatments and her future is uncertain. The graveyard he dreams of is one he sees through his bedroom window. It’s particularly heartbreaking to see Conor gaze daily upon the place where his mother might be buried. The possibility of her death is hard enough to escape from without those little reminders.
In addition to living with a sick mother, Conor has to deal with his icy grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, not quite succeeding at an English accent), a mostly absent father (Toby Kebbell), and bullies who beat him up after school. Out of all this turmoil arrives the Monster (Liam Neeson), an enormous wooden beast who breaks out of the yew tree in the neighboring cemetery and always arrives at 12:07. When the Monster first arrives, he announces that he’ll tell Conor three stories over a period of nights, after which Conor will be forced to tell his own story, his truth.
In A Monster Calls, art is set up as an escape for Conor from the stresses of life. In moments of isolation he turns to drawing. It’s not just a way of taking his mind off his mother’s illness, but also a way of connecting to her and to happier times. At one point we see a home movie where his mother teaches a younger Conor how to paint in watercolors. The watercolor motif pops up throughout the film, in the opening credits and to illustrate the Monster’s three stories. In each instance, the use and presence of the watercolors helps Conor to find outlets for his sadness.
The Monster also positions storytelling as an escape from Conor’s grief. The three stories he tells are all allegories related to Conor’s situation, although the boy resists their painful truths. But they eventually help him to better cope with his mother’s condition, and he finally understands his own feelings when he’s forced to tell the last tale. Conor gains the necessary skills to tell and deconstruct his own life stories through his newfound artistic awakening.
A Monster Calls is enriched by the performances of its supporting characters. Kebbell steers clear of the usual absent dad clichés; he offers a respite from the focus on Conor’s sick mother during his visit, but he’s also realistic enough to know he can’t whisk Conor away to a different life. When he finally departs, it’s as a regular father, not some kind of uncaring villain. Weaver, who’s initially presented as a cartoonish mean grandmother, transitions into a woman on the cusp of losing a daughter and having to raise another child. Her relationship with Conor evolves gently and subtly. And Neeson deftly balances the Monster’s menace with compassion (although the digital processing used to deepen his voice is distracting and unnecessary).
If there’s a misstep, it’s with Felicity Jones’s performance as Conor’s mother. Jones can be electrifying on screen, as demonstrated by when she rescued a dull Stephen Hawking biopic from turning into a maudlin catastrophe. But she’s not given enough screen time in A Monster Calls to really develop her role as Conor’s mother, although she does the best with what she’s given. She exists mostly in the shadows—Conor talks about her with the monster, with his grandmother, with his father, but she’s rarely there with him. Her absence robs us of the chance to better understand her relationship with Conor. The film rationalizes this by showing her in hospital, or too sick to be seen, but it doesn’t ring true; it’s hard to believe that the family would have such a lackadaisical approach to a mother stricken with cancer.
And yet it still works, thanks to Lewis MacDougall’s performance as Conor. What director Bayona and screenwriter Patrick Ness fail to show us, MacDougall supplies. Even with his mother largely absent, MacDougall effectively conveys his fear of impending loss. It’s a remarkable performance for such a young actor, and one free of their usual clumsiness. MacDougall’s own mother died a year before filming began on A Monster Calls, and perhaps that helped him to better understand the role.
Despite all the sadness that pervades A Monster Calls, the film ends with a sense of hope. Conor will surely face more sadness throughout his life, but he now has a means to fight it.