The uncharitable might dismiss this film as saccharine hokum. And saccharine it is – tears flow bountifully, as befits a film based on a children’s book about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer and whose only friend is an imaginary tree (voiced by Liam Neeson, who of course suffered a very public loss of his own). But is it hokum? I don’t think so; it’s got some vital things to say about grieving. Key to appreciating the film is acknowledging that the boy, who appears in every scene, is not a likeable character. Conor O’Malley (played with immense courage by 14 year-old Lewis MacDougall) is caustic and aggressive, lashing out physically at the school bullies who have given him hell and, more troublingly, some of his loved ones who haven’t. Spielberg would recoil at such a thing, but I greatly admire how it refuses to sentimentalise youth. As the mother’s health continues to deteriorate, so does Conor’s rage understandably build up. But if we watch closely then we start to realise that this outwardly expressed anger is really directed at himself, and we begin to feel for the poor kid. As does the imaginary tree monster of the title, who acts as some kind of subconscious counsellor, relating three (lushly animated) stories that are designed to demonstrate how there’s no such thing as right and wrong. These stories finally draw out a truth, a nightmare, from within Conor that lies at the heart of all human beings when they’re put in the position of witnessing the long drawn-out death of a loved one. It’s an unimaginably painful truth, and it’s especially awful to hear when coming from the mouth of a pre-teen. But its nakedness helps to make this one of the most honestly therapeutic films that I’ve seen. And as such, A Monster Calls is necessary viewing – not hokum. With an added bonus: excellent supporting turns from Felicity Jones as the dying mother, Sigourney Weaver as the embattled grandmother, and Toby Kebbell as the handsome but flakey divorcee father. I accept that it’s very middlebrow and rather artlessly directed, but then every type of -brow has to deal with death at some point, don’t they?
You can watch it online now: http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-a-monster-calls-2016/?gclid=CI7jzt7u4NMCFc687QodydUBBQ