Based on the 2011 novel by Patrick Ness — and centred around the original idea of Siobhan Dowd as she herself was dying of cancer — A Monster Calls is an unusual tale of 12-year-old Conor O’ Malley (Lewis MacDougall), who, as the voice-over informs us in the beginning, is ‘too old to be a kid, too young to be a man’. With a withering-away, terminally-ill mother in and out of hospital, bullied by his classmates at school, an uptight grandma, father separated and living across the Atlantic in LA, Conor’s life holds everything a 12-year-old wouldn’t wish for.
Then out of the blue, or rather out of the eerie darkness, at seven minutes past midnight, the yew tree in the churchyard cemetery which the young lad can view from his bedroom window is uprooted and transforms itself into a massive monster (voice of Liam Neeson). The initial shock turns to solace as the tree monster promises to tell the boy three stories on consecutive days after which the youngster is to tell him one — his own worst nightmare.
A Monster Calls is a tearjerker, coming-of-age story with a difference, one in which the director Juan Bayona, aided by Patrick Ness’ script, doesn’t hesitate to explore the disconsolate life of a boy approaching adolescence. Some exceptional performances by MacDougall, the heart-breaking Felicity Jones as the wasting-away mother, Sigourney Weaver as the stern-turned-sympathetic grandmom and Toby Kebbell as the dad, fleeting in and out of the youngster’s life, makes this a compulsive watch. Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, appears in a cameo as the headmistress admonishing the young lad. The last few minutes will have the tender-hearted reaching for their hankies and tissues.
The three stories, are all with frank and ruthless messages, are a reality check on life and how one encounters its challenges. It’s ostensibly a children’s film, but scratch the surface and one sees dark overtones, those that cannot be ignored.