This is not your average monster movie.
There are five stages of grief according to the Kübler-Ross Model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These emotions were first used to describe the experiences of terminally ill patients prior to death. But they can be applied to various situations, including the loss of a loved one. Many have been lucky to have family and friends by their side when dealing with death. Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is not so lucky.
Too old to be a kid but too young to be a man, Conor is in that awkward, in-between phase of growing up, still struggling to figure it all out. On top of it all, he is coping with the terminal illness of his mother (Felicity Jones). He’s tired and alone, but he holds it together. He makes his own breakfast and gets himself to school everyday. He’s constantly bullied by mean classmates, but it’s nothing compared to what he has to face at home. Following an after-school beat-down, he kicks a pebble and shrugs it off. He’s fine. (Denial.)
Conor is clearly dealing with situations too big for his age. He can’t stand the fact that Mum is dying. He doesn’t want to live with Grandma (Sigourney Weaver). He wants to live with Dad (Toby Kebbell) but because of complicated adult reasons, Conor can’t go with him to Los Angeles where he lives. No one seems to listen to him or talk to him the way he needs to be talked to. He isn’t even punished when he causes trouble at school or makes a mess at home. Conor is clearly going through something but no one seems to know what to do including himself. Maybe this story would end up differently had there been a counselor to talk to or a mental health hotline to call.
So how does a young man deal with all this drama? With art, of course. Conor has a talent for drawing and his specialty is drawing monsters. His fascination with them is evident from the beginning. In an initian scene with his mother, they watch the 1933 version of King Kong off an old film projector. The two escape the reality of their situation for a few hours to watch the mighty beast climb the Empire State Building one last time. Conor asks why the humans are trying to kill the gargantuan gorilla. His mother explains it’s because they’re scared of something they don’t understand.
There are a lot of things that Conor doesn’t understand either. But rather than face his problems, he hides behind his drawings until he meets the Monster (Liam Neeson). The giant, nameless creature has other plans for him. He may look menacing in an oversized Groot sort of way, but Neeson’s eloquent speech lends a gentlemanly charm. Rather than scare the bejeezus out of the boy, the Monster will tell him three fables and, in turn, Conor will tell him his own story – a recurring nightmare. Conor may be depressed, but he isn’t about to take orders from a massive wooden creature. The Monster is not exactly the BFG, but he’s no Boogeyman either. He’s sort of like a therapist, helping Conor manage the reality of his situation through some intense psychotherapy.
Two of the Monster’s stories unfold on-screen in the form of vibrant, dream-like animation. The watercolor depictions are so beautiful they could stand as animated shorts of their own. Though the stories deal with serious subjects like death and murder, the voiceover interaction between Conor and the Monster maintain the film’s delicate balance of darkness and child fantasy. But Director J.A. Bayona shows us that monster movies aren’t always what they seem. Each fable turns out to be about something Conor did not expect. The film itself, while titled A Monster Calls, isn’t about a giant movie monster, though there is one in the film. Rather it is about a young boy who must deal his own monsters – his emotions and his own self.
The film presents itself as a dark child’s fantasy, but in many parts it feels too dark for children. Booming sound and music are mixed together to produce an overly intimidating entrance score for a Monster who doesn’t exactly warrant a menacing soundtrack. It wouldn’t be wrong to make the Monster seem so, well, monster-ish if his personality at least matched. Despite his outrageous size and intricately designed tree bark, the Monster appears as a two-dimensional device rather than a fully realized character. It’s a pity because Neeson’s voice gives him the gravitas that makes us want to listen to him all the more. But this is Conor’s story, not the Monster’s, so perhaps in this case it’s acceptable.
The sweetest surprise in the film is Sigourney Weaver’s Grandma. She is strict and cold, but there is a deep sense of love in her pained eyes. She is scared as she witnesses the slow death of her own daughter and the destruction it inflicts in her grandson. But she knows she has to stay strong and move on to keep the family going. Like her grandson, she too is learning how to face her fears.