Conor O’Malley’s (Lewis MacDougall) needs a friend. A sensitive child with a troubled home life, he’s being forced to deal with adult problems even though he’s only twelve-years-old. He is, as one character says, “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man.”
The young British boy’s troubles are many. His mother (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer so he’s forced to move in with his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). “If you get hungry there’s spinach in the fridge,” she says on the way out the door. “Don’t touch anything!” If that wasn’t bad enough his father (Toby Kebbell) lives in California and he’s the favourite of local bully Harry (James Melville). “I’m sorry you have to face this,” says dad, “but you have to be brave.”
One night at 12:07 he meets the friend he so desperately needs, a monster yew tree (voiced Liam Neeson) with roots for legs and long branches for arms. “I know everything about you,” he rumbles. “The truth you hide. The truth you dream.” Speaking in parables the giant tree tells Conor three stories to help him cope with the trauma in his life.
“A Monster Calls” is a quiet family drama about growing up and learning to grieve. It’s an intense topic and one that places it just outside of the kid’s entertainment category. An off-kilter tale that packs an emotional wallop in its final third, it defies expectations by allowing the characters to react in real ways. This is not sentimental fluff. Conor is in turmoil, plagued by nightmares of his mother’s grave and, as a result, lashes out in anger. It’s powerful and upsetting to see a young boy struggle with situations that he can barely understand let alone control.
At the heart of the story is Lewis MacDougall as Conor. He’s a child with an adult face that imbues the character with an unactorly authenticity that feels utterly real, even when he is talking to a giant tree.
Neeson’s voice is a thunderous roar that comes on strong but hides an undercurrent of tenderness and compassion.
“A Monster Calls” is a heartbreaking tale with a nightmarish climax that will be too intense for kids who may get wrapped up in the story. For everyone else it’s a fractured fairy tale with real insight and pathos.