It’s difficult to say objectively if A Monster Calls is likely to resonate with most audiences the way it did with me at the exact moment I happened to catch it in theaters. The very same week the fantasy-leaning cancer drama reached New Orleans I had lost my grandmother to an aggressive form of cancer and, at the time I’m writing this review, she still has not yet been memorialized with a funeral. The wounds are still fresh in a lot of ways, so I don’t have enough critical distance to say if this dark children’s fantasy about “a boy too old to be a kid and too young to be a man” struggling with the gradual loss of his young mother to failed chemotherapy treatments is truly the emotionally impactful, thematically complex filmgoing experience I found it to be. I can only say for sure that A Monster Calls is admirable in the brave ways it tackles issues of frustration, resentment, and self-conflict that wreak havoc on families who are hit with this kind of loss through prolonged illness. The film’s multi-faceted, sugarcoat-free discussion of how grief can be destructive long before it’s cathartic is not the thematic territory typically expected of a kids’ movie featuring a talking tree, but A Monster Calls fearlessly dives head first into those troubled waters and emerges as a hauntingly beautiful experience for taking that leap, one that arrived at the exact moment I needed it.
Liam Neeson voices the titular monster in this dark fantasy drama, a talking tree that visits a young boy each time he wakes from the recurring nightmare of physically letting his mother go while holding her hand at the edge of a cliff. The mother (Felicity Jones, who in all honesty gets just as little character development here as she does in Rogue One) is losing her battle with a rapidly progressing cancer; the boy is being physically bullied at school by the one kid who bothers to notice him; and the rest of the family struggles to figure out what to do with him now that his only attentive parent is at the verge of death. The tree monster solves none of these problems. He only awakes to tell the boy three seemingly unrelated stories (illustrated in beautiful watercolor-style animation) about dragons, kings, suicide, magic . . . pretty much nothing to do with his current predicament. Instead of smiting the boy’s enemies and bringing his mother back from the brink of death, the tree monster merely teaches him a few harsh life lessons: that sometimes life is a cheat, that sometimes good people do horrifically bad things, that sometimes “bad” people can do good, that terrible things often happen for no reason at all. The monster coaches the child through a tough moral gray area and, in the process, allows him to admit & accept some less-than-honorable feelings he’d been repressing about his mother’s impending death before it’s too late.
Besides the obvious reasons why I would connect with this kind of a cancer-themed familial drama at this time in my life, A Monster Calls also appeals to me directly by evoking the same brutal honesty & melancholy tone I found solace in with the similar dark children’s fantasies Paperhouse & MirrorMask. In all three films, young British children process real world emotional grief in a harsh dream space of their own artistic design. A Monster Calls joins this tradition, which unfortunately has a bad critical & financial track record, with a morally ambiguous tale of how there are no easy answers to the ways we process loss and how you’re not always going to be proud of the things you do, say, or feel in your worst moments of grief. It’s the exact kind of thoughtful, morally complex narratives I look for in my children’s media combined with a distinct visual palette (complete with a muscular tree butt for some reason) and impeccable timing, arriving just when I needed to wrestle with my own conflicted modes of grief. I may not be able to discuss A Monster Calls objectively due to my own recent familial loss, but I can say that it’s a deeply relevant & revelatory experience when you’re in that very particular, very fragile state of grief & mourning. There’s just some things about life that you need to hear from Liam Neeson dressed up like a talking tree to fully grasp, I suppose. It worked for me, anyway.