It’s exam week and the very last of my finals is tomorrow, so naturally I decided to go see a movie as I am wont to do in these trying times. My rationale was that I had yet to fulfill my monthly movie quota – that being at least one film per month – and once I leave for semester break it would be very unlikely for me to get the chance to go to the movies. I had to choose between A Monster Calls, which I’d been somewhat looking forward to, and The Railroad Tigers, which seemed like it’d be a fun and mindless romp.
My decision was helped along by the fact that I am indescribably broke (an exaggeration, yes, but let me have my hyperboles dammit) and thus I figured I should get my money’s worth, which is why I went for A Monster Calls.
It was worth every penny, and then some.
A Monster Calls is based off a novel by Patrick Ness, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie, and it tells the story of Conor O’Malley, a 12 year old boy whose mother is dying from an illness. He knows she’s dying, but he’s plagued by the guilt of wanting it all to be over and done with – of wanting his mother to finally pass, so it wouldn’t hurt anymore. When put into synoptic context like this, it all seems so very simple – but A Monster Calls excels in its simplicity by weaving a story that you can’t help but be involved in. It’s a simple story told exceedingly well, and even though you can hazard a rough guess at what’s going on and what’s about to happen next, you can’t help but be sucked into the maelstrom of emotions. It’s a story about guilt and finding the courage to survive, and by god if it wasn’t beautiful.
There are certain moments that highlight how clever – or at least thought-provoking – Ness’ writing is. The monster tells Conor the story of the invisible man who was tired of being unseen, and wonders:
“If no one sees you, are you really there at all?”
Halfway through the movie, Conor’s bully eventually tells him he’ll stop tormenting Conor from now on because he knows that’s what Conor wants – he provokes the bully intentionally because he wants the confrontation. He tells Conor that from now on Conor is “invisible to [him] too,” which pushes Conor off the edge into beating the boy into a pulp.
But why the bully? Why is it so important that Conor is visible to the bully? Why does Conor rely on the bully to make him feel seen, like he’s visible? And then it clicks: teachers treat Conor differently due to his mother’s illness. They’re more gentle, kinder. The other schoolchildren, unused to a person like Conor, unused to the whole circumstances surrounding him, the boy who’s tiptoed around like he’s made of glass, like he’d break at any moment, are unsure of how to treat him, and so they do what children do – they look at him with pity in their eyes and speak of him with condolences in their murmurs. They don’t look him in the eye, they don’t speak to him – they waltz around Conor like he’s a spectre, simultaneously seen and unseen. Only the bully treats Conor like normal – insofar as beating someone up is normal – and that’s the reason why Conor relies on him so much. It’s as much a dependent relationship as it is an unwanted one, and you have to admit it makes you think.
Speaking of the stories the monster tells Conor: the storytelling scenes are marked by a shift into watercolour-esque dioramas that are incredibly reminiscent of the watercolour art of Ubisoft’s Child of Light, and I thought that was a stroke of genius.
The animated watercolour scenes segue into the next smoothly, which is always something I greatly appreciate. It lends a fairy-tale-esque to the stories the monster tells Conor, further obfuscating the heavy meaning behind each of the stories. Even the watercolour dioramas serve a purpose – at the end it’s revealed that the watercolour dioramas that Conor sees from the monster’s stories are similar to paintings made by his mother when she was a child, and at the very end of her art album is a painting of a little girl on the monster’s shoulders. It’s shown that his mother knew the monster, evidenced by the way she looked at it in her final hours, but what are the odds of mother and son knowing the same monster? Of having the same monster walk by their side?
And if the monster saved Conor from his guilt, what did the monster save Conor’s mother from?
Keen eyes will notice Liam Neeson in a framed photograph, hoisting a little girl on his arms – it is implied that he is Conor’s grandfather. Liam Neeson is also the voice of the monster. Is it a little piece of meta or something else completely? Nobody knows, but it certainly adds another layer to one’s interpretation.
There is another aspect of Conor’s relationship with the bully that still niggles at my mind. From the beginning it’s made clear that their relationship is different from a normal victim-bully relationship in that Conor is the one who provokes the bully – Conor stares at him for any amount of time until the bully looks back, and then the beatdown commences. Until the part where Conor loses control, there was an underlying current of – attraction? a budding sexuality, perhaps? – in their actions concerning each other. I don’t rightly know and it’s hard for me to explain, but it’s definitely not the typical victim-bully relationship. There was a scene where the bully pulls on Conor’s tongue, warning him not to be a tattletale, and later on he says that he and Conor had a deal that only he could touch Conor. It’s as sexually charged as much as two children fumbling over their feelings can be, taking those tentative steps into adolescence.
Like I said, it’s hard to explain. I don’t rightly know if Ness planned for that kind of innocent exploration – insofar as pulling on someone’s tongue is innocent – of the boys’ sexuality, and at the same time I wonder if it’s not just me projecting these thoughts because I know Ness is gay. It’s not that I have a problem with that, because I don’t, but you do wonder to what extent does your interpretation of a work of art is influenced by what you know of the creator, and if it’s fair to them that those influences exist. Would I have thought the same if I didn’t know Ness is gay? Again, it’s an interesting point to ponder.
Sometimes I wish I’d never taken psychology in foundations.
Character-wise, and I suppose this is really more praise to the book than the movie, all the main characters are interesting, with none of them feeling like mere cutboard cutouts. Conor is a smartass with an artistic streak and possible anger issues. Conor’s mother wanted to go to art school and is loved by her friends and family. Conor’s grandmother works as a real estate agent despite her late years. Conor’s father is described as an all-start-but-no-finish kind of guy, who gives up on his family and goes to the other side of the pond to start a new one. They’re interesting little snippets that breathe life to a cast of characters that would otherwise be monotonous and plain. It helps you be invested in their stories: the shared pain Conor and his grandmother go through dealing with Conor’s mother’s illness; the frustration Conor feels with his father, who doesn’t seem to offer any legitimate way out; Conor’s desperate attempts to save his mother from death even though deep in his heart he’s already let her go; the guilt when Conor finally tells the monster the truth. If they were flat characters, we wouldn’t feel for them this way, but we do, and it’s another testament to the quality of Ness’ writing.
A Monster Calls was screened in a relatively tiny theatre, which I initially balked at because most of the time these tiny theatres are reserved for movies that don’t seem they would do well – The Wailing was one, if I remember correctly. Later I realised that the tiny theatre served to impart an almost intimate feel – there were only about seven of us in that hall, but it felt more like we were watching an arthouse film than a typical commercial-entertainment-heavy one. It was a good experience.
There was a delightful old man at the far end of my row who laughed out loud at Conor’s smart mouth and didn’t bother to muffle his sniffles during the more tearjerking parts. He sat there at the end of the row, armed with crisps and mineral water, content to enjoy the movie by his lonesome, and never have I felt more like I’d found a kindred spirit in my life. Whoever that old man is, I wish him all the joys the world has to offer, for he brightened up my day considerably.
A silly final observation: in the film, Conor uses a pair of very old Skullcandy headphones – or something that certainly looks a lot like it! – and for some reason seeing my favourite headphone brand on screen made me really happy.
Final verdict: A Monster Calls is a beautifully told story of overcoming guilt and finding the courage to move on and live on. Well-paced, stylish and thought-provoking, it’s well worth seeing. 9/10 would recommend.