Kleenex has probably got shares in A Monster Calls, because tissue sales will skyrocket every time it screens. Adapted from Patrick Ness's popular children’s novel by the novelist himself, A Monster Calls may seem, at first glance, to be yet another CGI-filled fantasty adventure. But what it really is, is the heart-rending story of a 12-year-old boy dealing with the reality of his mother slowly dying of cancer.
That 12-year-old boy is Conor O’Malley – "too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” – and he is beautifully portrayed by newcomer Lewis MacDougall. Conor is not a happy lad. He's bullied at school, his dad left years ago and is now living in LA with a new wife and daughter, and he's plagued by a recurring nightmare where the church and cemetery across from his bedroom window are swallowed up by the Earth in a giant sinkhole. But the biggest impact on his life is the fact that his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer, although she tries to put on a brave face and keeps telling Conor that the next new treatment will be the one that puts things right. Then his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) turns up to tell Conor that he has to come and live with her, as his mother is going back into hospital (for what, we in the audience know, will be the final time).
And then one night, at seven minutes after midnight, Conor is visited by a monster – the giant yew tree from the cemetary opposite that has come to life, all gnarled limbs and fiery eyes, and is voiced by Liam Neeson. The monster gruffly informs Conor that he will visit him at exactly 12:07 every night and tell him three stories, and on the fourth night, Conor will have to tell him a story – an that story will be Conor’s truth, the truth about his nightmare.
The monster's tales are beautifully brought to life with traditional animation, and each has an important lesson – and together the overall lesson is that people can be both good and bad, humans really are all shades of grey. The stories spill over into Conor's real life, seeing him act out - one leads to him destroying his grandmother's living room, another beating his bully badly enough to send him to hospital. But everyone around Conor is walking on eggshells, and he is never punished for his wrongdoings; nobody wants to pick on the kid whose mother is dying.
A film like A Monster Calls would not work without a great cast, and the team of actors here is exceptional. Jones and Weaver are huge talents, and they bring all those talents to the fore here (Joenes especially cutting a tragic figure) and Neeson is inspired casting for the voice of the monster. But the standout is young MacDougall, who is in almost every scene of the film and gives an assured, nuanced and deeply emotional performance.
A Monster Calls beautifully combines reality and fantasy to tell an all-too-human story: that death affects us all, and that grief is tough to deal with. And if you have ever lost anyone close to you through an illness such as cancer, you will find it particularly devastating. It's a film that sets out to manipulate the emotions, but its heart is very much in the right place. Do be sure to see it - just be sure take a box of tissues with you. You're going to need them.