Conor O’Malley (played by Lewis McDougall) is 12 years old, growing up in rural north England, near a hill with a lonely church, a lonely graveyard and a giant lonely yew tree. Every night, Conor has a nightmare in which that hill implodes and he is holding onto someone’s hand as they fall into the abyss. As the hand lets go and the person falls, Conor wakes up, to a real world which is also a nightmare. His young mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer and already plans are being made for Conor to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), whom he fears and dislikes. Conor would rather live with his father (Toby Kebbell) in L.A., but his father doesn’t want that. Meanwhile, at school, Conor is bullied every day by older boys, and usually the victim of physical violence.
With all of this horror in his real life, Conor is not particularly frightened when the yew tree comes to life as a giant (and genuinely terrifying) monster (voice by Liam Neeson) and calls on Conor, telling Conor he will be returning each night to tell him a story. After three stories from the monster, it will be Conor’s turn to tell the monster about his nightmare.
A Monster Calls is a simple tale beautifully told. Turning all that Conor (and the audience) have been taught about fairy tales, horror stories, redemptive violence, good guys and bad guys, and even superheroes, on its head, A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness and directed by J.A. Bayona, tells the story of a boy and his pain and grief in such a wonderfully original way that it becomes a grand fairy tale of its own, one with universal appeal and application, while remaining focused on its sorrowful subject. The family and school relationships which make up that subject should have been fleshed out more fully and presented more compellingly, but you can’t have everything.
It’s true that if I hadn’t agreed with the direction of its ideas, A Monster Calls would not have been as strong a film for me, but those ideas are rare enough to find in popular films aimed at a younger (not too young) audience. They deserve to be singled out for special affirmation. With great performances all around, a strong score, a dreamy cinematography which is perfectly-suited to the plot and wise writing, A Monster Calls is almost a classic and gets ***+ verging on ****. It will be hard to keep this profound and moving film out of my list of top films of the year. My mug is up and I recommend it to all (though I fear many people, including the young, may find the film boring).