‘A Monster Calls’ When Kids Need to Grieve

Film delivers far more than its marketing suggests

There are some movies that may take years to discover, because they are marketed improperly or because the distributor just didn’t know what to do with it. Such is the case with the heart-wrenching but beautiful “A Monster Calls.”

“Conor O’Malley was too old to be a kid and too young to be a man,” says the narrator of the film, later revealed to be to the Monster of the film’s title. That’s what makes the already difficult fact that his mother is dying all the more difficult to comprehend for young Conor. It’s also a fact that makes the film a difficult sell to both adults and children.

It is about a boy vocalizing his fears and his feelings — that he is afraid of being left alone but wishes his mother would die so her suffering will end.

That’s unfortunate, because the story is rendered so well, it handles the unfair facts of life so touchingly, that audiences may be frightened away. Instead, one hopes audiences find the courage to take it all in.

The Monster in question exists in Conor’s imagination, as the all-healing yew tree he can see from his window, standing silently in the abandoned churchyard on a nearby hill. It comes to life one night and explodes into Conor’s bedroom, promising to tell him three stories, after which Conor will be required to tell him a fourth — a story that is his own personal nightmare.

As his mother’s health worsens, and the bullied, introverted Conor faces the prospect of a life without a father (who moved to California) or a mother, the Monster relates fables of his past. Yet each story is not what it seems, and the point of each seems to drive home what Conor instinctively knows deep inside: Life is terribly unfair, there isn’t always a princely hero or wicked queen, and neither justice nor redemption are things that are always delivered nor found.

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These vignettes, presented in evocative animated sequences, are reason enough for any tween or teen to see the film. They are the exact opposite of what our special liberal snowflakes are told when they’re growing up. Indeed, the Monster is telling us all that we are entitled to nothing, that bad things happen to good people, and that sometimes it isn’t even clear who the good people are … or the bad.

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As Conor navigates the increasingly dire circumstances in his life, the film sets us up for the inevitable climax — one that hammers home the real point of the film. As Conor imagines the old stone church crumbling, the earth and graveyard around it disintegrating and pulling his mother into the abyss, the Monster demands that Conor now tell the fourth story, the story that is his personal nightmare.

It is about Conor vocalizing his fears and his feelings — that he is afraid of being left alone but wishes his mother would die so her suffering will end. These are devastating words coming from the boy, words that torture him, words he is ashamed of, yet words which absolutely must be spoken.

Our culture is not adept at handling death. We fear dying so much that we harden our hearts to protect ourselves, and fail to visit those we love who soon will pass. We do not speak of it to ourselves, much less our children. It is something spoken about in hushed and solemn tones, which only serves to further mythologize and ostracize our feelings about it. We bury our thoughts and feelings when it comes to death.

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Yet the Monster rightly demands that those words be spoken. The film’s cultural contribution lies in simply having its hero articulate his feelings, to unburden himself of the shame he feels from them.

For children, tweens, and teens — and even adults — for whom discussing the impending death of a loved one is difficult, the film is a must-see. It isn’t a depressing film, but rather one that provides us with a young man we identify with, in a situation we all understand, that delivers true emotional catharsis regarding a horribly challenging subject.

Yes, it is a big tear-jerker, particularly the last few minutes. Yet the tears are going to come anyway for those who know someone near the end, and the pain will come, too. The point of popular culture is to articulate things that we haven’t been able to articulate in other ways, so in that regard, “A Monster Calls” is a singular achievement. It may very likely help young people who struggle with the death of a loved one deal directly with their own conflicting emotions.

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