The story behind the book version of "A Monster Calls" is a tragic one. Siobhan Dowd was an activist and a writer in the UK. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and, during her terminal illness, came up with the story of a young boy fighting to come to terms with his mother's fate. She passed away before the project's completion and the story was passed to the brilliant writer Patrick Ness, with Jim Kay illustrating.
Ness' "Chaos Walking" trilogy is, in my-ever-so-humble opinion, the finest young adult sci-fi fantasy trilogy in history, making "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent" look like feeble attempts at profundity.
Conor's mother is dying of cancer and every night he has a nightmare of holding her hand as she dangles over a deep and crumbling pit. They live across the way from an old church with a cemetery sheltered by an ancient and massive yew tree. One night, at 12:07 on the dot, the tree pulls up its roots, shakes off his branches and becomes a very human-shaped monster.
The monster tells Conor that he will tell him three stories over the period of several days, but after the third story, Conor must tell the monster a story: the story of his nightmares. "A Monster Calls" obviously trades heavily on metaphor, with the monster existing as a way for Conor to face his fears and come to terms not just with his mother's death, but with the rage building inside him. Conor wants to be punished by the world, punished by his absentee father, his cold and reserved grandmother and by the sadistic bully at school. Finding out what Conor wants to be punished for is yet another gut-punch. The film might be too grim for some children, but "A Monster Calls" isn't trying to appeal to any set demographic. J.A. Bayona's gorgeous visuals, combined with Oscar Faura's eye-melting cinematography and Liam Neeson's monster, keep the film always stunning to look at even during its soggy middle section. "A Monster Calls" doesn't quite have the emotional weight it should have, based on the subject matter—but there were multiple people openly and loudly weeping during the screening, so I might just be a hard-hearted bastard. If this movie can teach young people positive ways to deal with grief, loss and anger, then it's already earned its wings, regardless of what anyone thinks.
A Monster Calls
Dir. J.A. Bayona
Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX