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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that A Monster Calls is the powerful, emotionally wrenching adaptation of award-winning author Patrick Ness' heartbreaking young adult novel about a 13-year-old boy dealing with his mother's terminal illness and sudden visits from a loud, scary storytelling tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). The animated stories within the story are frequently bloody, and all have unexpected lessons about humans' complexity. There's infrequent language (one "dammit," etc.), as well as some schoolyard violence -- Conor is picked on by a relentless bully who physically and verbally abuses him (and one day, Conor fiercely reciprocates). Conor also destroys his grandmother's living room and has a terrifying recurring nightmare about a horrible disaster that nearly kills him and his mum. Many scenes feature upsetting, overwhelming sadness as Conor comes to terms with his mother's mortality and his own complicated feelings about what's happening. For families dealing with loss or grief, this film could help kids acknowledge and express what they're going through, but despite themes of compassion and courage, it can be very difficult to watch. Bring tissues.
What's the story?
A MONSTER CALLS is based on Patrick Ness' award-winning novel about 13-year-old British boy Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) who lives with and cares for his very ill single mother (Felicity Jones). Bullied at school, artistic Conor begins to receive nightly visits from a huge monster that transforms from the ancient yew tree behind his house. The Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) calls on the boy at exactly 12:07 am and lets him know that he'll tell Conor three stories and then expects one in return -- but it must be the truth. Angry at both the Monster's morality tales and his mother's worsening condition, Conor retaliates against his bullies, his father (Toby Kebbell) visiting from America, and his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) before things finally come to a devastating climax.
Is it any good?
Author Ness penned this adaptation of his own novel, which is as poignant as his beautiful book and features brilliant performances by Jones, MacDougall, and Neeson. Director J.A. Bayona is no stranger to depicting intense mother-child dynamics. His 2012 historical drama The Impossible captured a mother and son's fraught post-tsunami journey; in A Monster Calls, there's just as treacherous a disaster looming over every interaction between Conor and his beloved mum -- the unspoken cancer that's eating away at her slowly but surely.
MacDougall gives one of the finest youth performances of 2016 as angry, sad, confused Conor, who's hoping beyond hope that his mum will get better but who also knows (as the Monster's visits and stories symbolize) that the inevitable is on its way -- and who's desperately afraid to admit that tangled up with anticipatory grief is a sense of possible relief. Jones is also wonderful as a mother who desperately wishes she had "100 years to give" her son but knows it's not a possibility. But the heart of the film isn't simply Conor and his mother but Conor and the Monster, and Neeson's spectacular rendering of the yew-tree creature is both frightening and comforting. As he tells Conor, the truth, like people, is complicated and even contradictory, but it's what you need to face to move forward.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the messages of A Monster Calls. What is the monster trying to teach Conor? How do his stories surprise the boy? What does he learn?
Why is it so difficult for Conor to admit how he's feeling about his mum? How do things change after he finally expresses himself? Have you ever felt afraid to tell others about what you were thinking/feeling? Why?
How faithful is the movie to the spirit of the book? What changes were made? Do you agree with the filmmakers' decisions to omit or add elements? Do you feel differently about the movie knowing Ness wrote the screenplay?
- In theaters: December 23, 2016
- On DVD or streaming: March 28, 2017
- Cast: Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Lewis MacDougall
- Director: J.A. Bayona
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book characters, Middle school, Misfits and underdogs, Monsters, ghosts, and vampires
- Character strengths: Compassion, Courage
- Run time: 108 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic content and some scary images
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