Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a troubled twelve-year-old boy who suffers nightmares of seeing his mother (Felicity Jones) falling over a precipice that has opened up in the churchyard near his home, and having to grab her hand as she is about to plunge into the abyss. But his waking life is little better, for his mother is afflicted with a terminal illness, and no matter how much he hopes she will be able to pull through, he is well aware the odds are far from her favour. To make matters worse, this has isolated him and he has no friends, just a clique who take great delight in picking on him in this disadvantaged state, beating him up just about every day, and now, as his father (Toby Kebbell) lives in Los Angeles, he must stay in England with his hated grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
A Monster Calls started life as an acclaimed children's novel by Patrick Ness, and his screenplay was left unproduced for a few years in spite of the equal admiration it received from those who read it. It eventually hit the world's screens under the direction of J.A. Bayona, who was well known for his pleas to the emotions in his movies, so it seemed like a perfect match. But then it turned out the audience expected for the production wasn't there: released over the Christmas holidays, it was perhaps poorly marketed as an adventure movie, a special effects extravaganza, whereas it was more of a serious drama that used those effects in selected sequences, but the domestic material was paramount.
This may have presented a towering tree monster as a character, but he was a metaphor for Conor's mental anguish and what he needed to reach the grieving process and get through his living nightmare. Therefore just when things are at their bleakest, the titular monster appears and makes promises that sound like threats: he will tell the boy three stories, and after those he must tell the tree man one of his own, representing his truth, which he is reluctant to face up to. He's not exactly in denial, as he is well aware of what is happening to his mother, but as you would understand losing a parent is not easy at any age, and at a tender one it is all the worse. This was conveyed in a tone of all-encompassing gloom.
The mood was downbeat from minute one to more or less the final frame, albeit with a ray of hope that Conor's mother has prepared him for her passing with sufficient compassion and acceptance that there are some things you cannot change, and coping with them is better than trying not to. Nevertheless, the scenes where the kid suffered were laid on with a trowel, and there was a relentless quality about the entire, almost two-hour experience that obviously wanted the audience to indulge themselves in a good cry, whether they were prepared for that or not. You could well see why there was not the reception for A Monster Calls that its creators would have hoped for; what succeeds on the page can take on a different timbre on the screen, and not many kids would want to watch a movie that forced them to contemplate the loss of a parent (this was based on the true story of the death of the original writer).
There was a message that people are complicated, neither all good nor all bad, so those bullies who make Conor's schooldays an ordeal would not be the way they were with him with others, he only saw their worst side. Which was fair enough, but since we did see them at their worst, and how they brought out the worst in the protagonist (he turns to destruction and violence), we may be less forgiving than the film would have wished us to be. This aspect was better conveyed in the Weaver character as she was obviously not accustomed to showing her warmer side, not to Conor at any rate, but when he lashes out at her we can perceive her heart is breaking just as badly as her grandson's is. This was highly sensitively performed throughout, Jones had to be applauded for looking dreadful as the disease gripped her when so many movie terminal illnesses go for a glow of passing in their depictions, but it was the interplay between MacDougall and Neeson's resonant voice that was most arresting. A raw film to watch, but it did hit a truth about the harshness of life, however unsubtly. Music by Fernando Velázquez.