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A Monster Calls

January 6, 2017
A Monster Calls

It’s a shame that the wide release of A Monster Calls was held until after the new year, when most schools are back from winter break. While it’s stronger stuff than elementary school kids are likely ready for, this is a movie aimed at younger teens that actually respects them for their abilities to handle ambiguity and nuance, just as the novel by screenwriter Patrick Ness did.

On the surface, it functions as a relatively straightforward use of fantasy to get at feelings that are difficult to grapple with directly. Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is around thirteen years old — no longer a child, but not yet a man — when his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), gets sick. His father (Tony Kebbell) is estranged from them, living in Los Angeles.

And then, one night, comes the monster. The ancient yew (voiced by Liam Neeson) from the graveyard near Conor’s house lifts itself from the ground and walks over to his window. It tells him that it will relate three stories, and then Conor must tell it the fourth one, his own.

But the stories that it tells — two of them gorgeously animated — are not the ones we expect. They start out as usual, for fairy tales, but somewhere along the way the neat morals go awry. The young woman who married the king is a witch, but she didn’t cause his illness, and the prince who charges against her is hardly a noble avenger. The old man is nasty and greedy, but also can save many lives with his herbalist’s skills. People are complicated, and cannot be sorted into easy “good” and “bad” labels.

Which, to be honest, is more emotional maturity than about 95% of movies out there aimed at any age. The whole culture is aimed as reinforcing an attitude of “my tribe is good; your tribe is bad” and then lining everything else up along that axis. We start to believe that it really is easy to judge moral worth, in others and in ourselves. A single sin casts someone out as an Enemy of the Cause.

A Monster Calls lives in the in-between spaces. Conor is stuck between childhood and adulthood. His mother is suspended between life and death. The characters in the stories are somewhere between good and evil. Director J.A. Bayona shoots scene after scene through doorways and windows, caught between one place and another. The film refuses to resolve anything neatly.

It is, instead, that most valuable thing to a young person stuck in-between: a grownup who will take you seriously, look you in the eye, and tell you the truth. And the truth is that sometimes things are complicated, and there are no easy answers. The truth is that people are complicated, and there are no simple good-or-bad judgements. The truth is that life is complicated, and you’re complicated, and it’s okay if you don’t understand it all right away because nobody understands is, and we’re all pretty much trying to do the best we can.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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