“You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.”
– Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
Visually stunning. Those are the only words that I could imagine using when I was thinking about how I was going to share my story about seeing A Monster Calls. Your eyes and heart are going to burst with a series of emotions that you aren’t necessarily expecting to feel together. Pain and triumph, healing and breaking, hollow but peaceful.
I walked into this movie trying to guess all the ways they were going to bring the book to life. I read it beforehand because I’d heard it was going to break my heart right open. And I can tell you that rarely, if ever truly, do I see a movie and feel the same emotion as I did when reading the book. From the beginning of the film, J.A. Bayona smashes into you like a landslide. The opening credits are like shots from a watercolor palette. The color hits the paper; then the water takes over, and the color begins to dance and move with life.
The art itself is a significant character in this story. We follow Conor (Lewis McDougal) as he tries to navigate his life as a teenage boy with a terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones). It’s the art that creates a deep bond between Conor and his Mum. The importance of art is instilled in him from a very young age. “Life is always in the eyes,” his mother tells him in a scene of a homemade video, “if you get that then you’ll be a proper artist.” Art finds its way into almost every scene. Whether we find Conor thoughtlessly doodling in class or covering page after page at home, surrounded by his thoughts at his desk, it’s everywhere.
The animation is mesmerizing. Like bringing a children’s storybook to life. The characters in the stories don’t even have faces! They’re like shadow puppets moving in front of a sea of color. And then you’re brought back to the stark reality that is Conor’s life. The messages behind the stories help guide Conor through this torturous time, trial after trial. And all the Monster tells him is that when he is done telling Conor the stories, Conor will tell him the story. The story that only Conor see’s in his dreams.
Conor’s dad shows up but is little to no help in this situation. He can barely take care of himself and his new wife and baby. There is no space in this new life of his for Conor. He’s around just enough to bring a sliver of comfort.
And slowly but surely, the monster inside of Conor makes its way out. When Conor opens his eyes and the imaginary Monster leaves he sees that he has, in fact, destroyed his Grandmother’s pristine sitting room. The one with the 100-year-old cuckoo clock from her mother. But the beauty in that damage is that raw emotion cannot be contained. It bleeds into every aspect of our lives, a powerful force.
Conor’s real monster, the one who cannot be contained, the one who is looking to be nobody but demanding to be seen, turns out to be the guilt he feels for letting go of the pain of his Mum’s fight with cancer. Because that leads to him admitting that he is ready to let his Mum go, and what kind of child does that? A child who has been broken and battered physically and emotionally.
Conor’s Mum wishes she could “give him a hundred years,” and tells him that if ever he looks back and is upset because he was so angry, that he should know that she is angry, too. She leaves him with the only gifts she has left to give: reassurance, validation, and the fiercest love. The scenes look simultaneously brighter and duller at the same time. Like a cloud has been lifted but the sun can’t quite get through the dusty window.
This scenes are powerfully moving. Mother and son are connected so deeply, beyond DNA and talents and features. Their souls have lived the same life, gone on the same adventure. The Monster will truly always be their Monster.
Now you can hear the Monster, the wonderful Liam Neeson, read the first chapter of Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls.