As a piece of filmmaking, A Monster Calls is a little shaggy. It’s really quite plodding out of the gates, and a dour tone is omnipresent. Stylistically, the picture occasionally reaches for some naturalistic flourishes, but, as opposed to adding a lyrical touch, it’s almost like you can see the stitching on the film: odd stray shots, clumsy out of focus images, a less-than-remarkable score. But the emotional power of the film is unquestionable.
When my editor first sent out the notice for this screening, she appended a brief note, “You’ll cry buckets.” And she’s not wrong. [Editor's Note: I saw this at Fantastic Fest by myself and openly sobbed.] Usually commentary like “not a dry eye in the house” is a bit hyperbolic for my tastes, but unless there was a collective allergy attack in the theater, everyone around me was visibly moved. This film is very personally resonant for me—one moment in particular was seemingly plucked verbatim from one of my life-defining traumas—but we can only wait and see if the film will jerk tears en masse.
The third feature length film from director J.A. Bayona, A Monster Calls is an adaptation of a fantasy novel penned by Patrick Ness. Focused on the trials and tribulations of young Conor, our guy really gets trounced by the full complement of tough turns. His Mum—Felicity Jones, who is having a massive year—is gravely ill. His father lives across the globe. He’s relentlessly bullied at school. And he’s often left in the clutches of his stringent grandmother, Sigourney Weaver, trying to English accent her way out of this thing.
As pressure mounts and nightmares persist, Conor finally meets the Monster (Neesons!). The Monster’s aim is simple, to tell Conor three tales, and then Conor will tell the fourth tale, his truth. Where this may read like straightforward fare, A Monster Calls readily takes its place among the collection of melancholic, challenging “kids” movies. This film has an aching heart, and it guards it with suspicion and rage and confusion. It’s a kind of fairy tale, but only in the stock players. Conor has his otherworldly monster, and the monster tells stories to Conor about princes, witches, invisible men, apothecaries and so on.
Through this the film does its most thoughtful work. So many stories of this ilk are neatly portioned out into simple morality tales. The wronged prevail, the wicked are punished, and the good notch easy, indisputable victories. And as is the standard build, there is a beautiful gilt wall of “Happily Ever After” placed at the end, forever containing the purity of this narrative. But A Monster Calls understands that happily ever after is not punctuation, but a through point. As long as we draw breath, there is another chapter. Ill-intentioned good and well-intentioned bad swirl together in so many of the complications life sets in our path, no matter how much we crave a simple, tidy answer.
The Monster imbues Conor with these lessons, and Conor continues to arrive at junctures where these truths reverberate again and again. You can only take the jagged edges of the puzzle as they are and find the best way to piece them together, knowing they will always defy the well machined pieces of our ideal outcome. You’re left with something a bit rough and haggard, and therein lies not only the monster, but our monster. A friend, an antagonist, an ally, and a foil. It’s not an entity to be completely tamed, but one of many forces to fit into our lives.
Because occasionally, when it’s as though your life has rejected you and the ground beneath you is rent asunder, your monster may be the only one who can save you.