Featured: A Monster Calls – Dealing with Grief, Family and Spirituality
For those that listened to our Top 10 of 2016 show, you’ll know that J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls made my #10 slot. It’s a film that spoke heavily to my heart, as it depicts a young boy trying to cope with devastating tragedy. I can’t say that I’ve experienced verbatim what Conor (played wonderfully by Louis MacDougall) goes through in this film, but I’ve dealt with tragedy – as a lot of us have – and could relate with his struggle.
The brilliance of A Monster Calls is how Bayona manages to bring purpose to The Monster (voiced perfectly by Liam Neeson), as it relates to this specific narrative, while also providing enough symbolic ambiguity that you could read it any way you wanted to for your own story. Grief is a big monster in all of our lives, and A Monster Calls reminds us that there are many ways to interpret that emotion. For Conor, his grief was rooted (ahem) in frustration, fear, anger and desperation as he was trying to deal with his reality. This is emulated in several scenes. His first couple of interactions with The Monster are irritating, as he’s looking for an easy fix for his mom, but that’s not what happens. Instead, The Monster tells Conor a story, something he didn’t want to hear, only compounding his frustration. The second story he hears from The Monster further supplants Conor into his anger, which leads to a major catharsis and broken property in his grandmothers house. We also see how Conor’s grief, and desperation for answers, has effected his relationship with his father (Toby Kebell).
For a story that could have easily have fallen into meandering schmaltz, A Monster Calls is carefully crafted to show us how grief comes in many forms and how The Monster can change depending on how we view it. At various points in the film, The Monster is one of belief, he’s one of catharsis, he’s one of protection, he’s of accepting truth and for reasons I’ll get too here shortly, he’s arguably one of a higher power. The Monster obviously functions as a coping mechanism for Conor, but what’s interesting is how that mechanism operates in a way that renders the human condition during tragedy. There is a progression in Conor’s grief that is beautifully, and breathtakingly, indicative of how that emotion unravels during these arduous times in our lives. It’s for that reason why the pathos of A Monster Calls is genuine and earned.
Additionally, that emotion is felt when we see how Conor’s grief interacts with other family members. I already mentioned that it brings some strain between him and his dad. But it’s heavily on display between him and his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) as well. It’s no secret that when people are hurting, they are vulnerable. And it doesn’t help matters when you have conflicting personalities, which we see between Conor and grandma. Yet, it’s interesting to see how a specific event – and unfortunately, a painful one – brings them together. A Monster Calls is from Conor’s perspective, and rightfully we spend time on his turmoil, but there is something to be said about how this film depicts this idea of togetherness through tragedy. In that regard, this film is timely as it relates to our current societal landscape. At any rate, the idea of family and grief couldn’t be more potent than what we see between Conor and his mom (Felicity Jones deserves an Oscar nomination if you ask me). The scene where she tells Conor to break things, as a way to cope, is devastating. That moment perfectly crystallizes this notion of grief, and how Conor’s anger and desperation became self-identifiable, allowing for that interaction to sting in ways Conor will probably never forget. It not only gave Conor permission to break things, but it gives more weight to The Monster in how he helped Conor in the first place.
This brings me to my final thought about A Monster Calls. Again, I love how the film allows for interpretation, and for me there are spiritual undertones that resonated heavily. Forgive me in advance – I will probably lose some of here – but there are parallels to my own personal beliefs that I found striking. For one, the fact that The Monster is a tree is interesting to me as it relates to God, commonly known as “The Tree of Life.” On top of that, The Monster uses narratives to teach Conor about his grief and how it’s okay to not be okay. In essence, he uses parables to provide comfort, hope and ultimately healing, in a way that is uncanny through the lens of faith. And the way Conor reacts to those stories, again reflecting frustration and confusion, is very reminiscent of my own spiritual journey. It’s also what makes the final sequences of A Monster Calls blisteringly poignant for me. Conor has called upon something that is beyond him – The Monster, of course – in order to bring healing to his mom. The Monster may not have provided the kind of healing he initially sought out for, but in the end, there is healing that takes place. There is an acceptance that Conor must submit to in order to break free of his nightmare. The way Bayona depicts this visually is stunning and emulates spirituality in a way that I found provocative in terms of truth and faith in times of healing.
The great thing about A Monster Calls though, is that you can read it differently than what I just laid out, and the film still works. The Monster can literally be anything you want it to be. For me, however, those notions of faith are symbolized impeccably in The Monster – especially in the inspired casting of Liam Neeson – and how he interacts with Conor is powerful. The way Conor deals with grief and family is almost too close to home. I’ve never read the book, but this film depicts my story in a lot of ways, at least in terms of the emotions themselves. It hurts my heart that young boys and girls have to go through things like this in real life, but A Monster Calls is a great tool to help them in that process. I cannot recommend this film highly enough.
Hear our podcast review on Episode 203: