“It begins like so many stories do, with a boy, too old to be a kid, too young to be a man . . . and a nightmare.” Mom was getting sick again. The sound of her retching, even through the bathroom door, was violent and disturbing. I thought someone should be there, the way she would sometimes kneel beside me or my brother when we were throwing up. She would touch a shoulder or hold a hand as the waves took us, murmuring there, there, telling us everything will be okay, just let it all out. Somehow it made being sick just a little better. But when I tried to push into the bathroom, she stopped the door before it opened all the way. Through her groaning and crying, I couldn’t understand what she said. Only one word was clear and it was an anguished no. So I stopped, kneeling there just outside the door, as her insides exploded across the porcelain. I wanted to run back to my room. I wanted to be almost anywhere else, but some ten-year old sense of duty kept me sitting outside the bathroom for the next half hour. As much to myself as for her, I quietly murmured, there, there, everything will be okay, just let it all out. Her blood was bad. That’s what my mother said when she started to get sick all the time. I thought it had something to do with the heroin she had been addicted to, which I vaguely understood to be poison she had put in her veins. But that was over, she said. The name they finally gave what was hurting her now was leukemia. She said it wasn’t the disease that was making her sick, though, it was the medicine. It was like having the flu times ten. When she wasn’t in the bathroom, she was asleep. She didn’t want to do anything, didn’t want to say anything. She was still home with us, but it was like she had begun to fade away. Her hair had started falling out. She talked about getting one of those massive Dolly Parton wigs. Though I had never seen her attach or remove such a wig, I imagined the scene where we get a glimpse of Darth Vader’s naked and scorched skull, for just a moment, before the dark helmet is lowered onto his head. It was somehow both terrifying and really cool to think of my mother as being like Darth Vader. When the vomiting had finally stopped, Mom laid back against the bathroom wall. Her eyes were closed. She looked small, defeated, and miserable. I reached around the open door and took her hand. It seemed like the least I could do for her. “I just wanna die,” she said. Her hand was cold, like she already had. No one ever says the word cancer in the 2017 film A MONSTER CALLS, but that’s what is killing thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley’s mother. Lizzie is asleep when we see her for the first time. Conor’s face, so much older than he actually is, peers through the partially opened door at the dark shape huddled almost lifelessly on the bed. He does not attempt to enter the room, but he watches her for a moment. Then, having made his own breakfast and washed his own clothes, he grabs his book bag and leaves for school. It’s obvious that he and his mother have been doing this for a while now. It’s also obvious that she’s not going to make it. Conor bolts awake from the usual nightmare. It starts with an old church building crumbling in the middle of a graveyard. Then the ground itself begins to rumble and fall away under their feet. He grabs her hand as the darkness opens up below them. He holds on as tightly as he can, but he’s just a child and the chaos of the abyss is beckoning. His mother, as always, slips right out of his grasp. She wakes in the middle of the night to find him in her bed. She smiles weakly and tells him he should go back to his own room. Five minutes, he says. Just five minutes, I promise. She looks at him. Five minutes, she says, but knows that he’s going to fall asleep there. Night-night, she says. He turns and hugs her, almost desperately. She looks sad and lost, but she puts her arms around him and closes her eyes. Like everything is going to be okay. Not surprisingly, Conor is being bullied at school. There’s something in his face, in his manner, that sets him apart from his classmates. While they are children on the verge of becoming young adults, he’s a much older soul trapped in a younger body. In class he seems distant and haunted, preferring to lose himself in the pictures he’s always drawing in his textbooks. His teachers accept it all, going so far as to tell him that he can talk to them any time he wants, undoubtedly aware of what he’s facing at home. But our peers are often not as understanding, so he gets pushed and he gets punched. He gets kicked. He gets hurled to the ground by boys who are bigger than he is. When Conor comes home from school, his mother seems to have come back to life. He says nothing about her illness and she says nothing about the bruises on his face. Instead, she’s set up an old 16mm film projector that once belonged to her father. When he asks if it’s a VCR, she cheerfully insists that it’s even better than a VCR. Soon the 1933 version of KING KONG is splashed, larger than life, across the wall of their dilapidated old house. Conor and his mother smile in childlike glee, like there really is magic left in the world. An hour later, they are stretched out together on the couch. As Kong smacks at airplanes from atop the Empire State Building, Conor urges him to smash them all into a thousand pieces. But, weary and riddled with bullets, the monstrous ape cannot survive. His large hand grasps at the spire, holding on for just a moment, before letting go. He bounces from the side of the building and plummets to his death. Conor says something to his mother, but she has fallen asleep again. The eleven o’clock news had ended, but Mom and I were still awake. They were showing CARRIE on the late-night movie and we settled in with a huge bowl of popcorn between us. This was well beyond the usual, even for our family, but they had been unusually kind to me lately. Probably because I had leapt up in my fourth-grade class and declared that I wished I’d never been born. Poor Mrs. Dooley had been stunned, making calls to both the school counselor and to my parents. The counselor did little more than ask if I wanted to hurt myself. I didn’t, at least not yet. But Mom and Dad had begun insisting, over and over, that they loved me, no matter what things were like at home. To prove it, they had taken me to see a movie in an actual theater. And now there was this. The house was dark but for the television flickering on the couch where we sat together. Though she wouldn’t always tell me everything she thought, Mom could be brutally honest in what she did tell. Unable to see much more than her shimmering profile beside me, I suddenly felt more brave than usual. Mom, I asked, do you think I’m a weirdo? She laughed, then said, yeah, maybe a little. We watched as Carrie’s story unfolded, the awkward reject with her special powers and the mother who would do anything to save her child, even if that meant plunging a knife into her back. It wasn’t a surprise that I found the mother far scarier than the child. After a while, my own mother spoke up again. Do you remember what Grandma said about you? I did not. You and Nick had stayed at their house for the weekend and she’d found a gray hair on your head. Imagine that, ten years old and you had a gray hair. She said I was a forty-year-old midget. Mom laughed. Yep, that’s what she said. She said it pretty funny, but it was basically the same thing I been sayin’ about you since you were a little kid. What’s that? You’re an old soul, she said, and nothin’s ever easy for an old soul. Conor is hunched over the desk in his bedroom. It’s been another bad day. As lines and shapes appear beneath his furiously moving pencils, it’s like he’s creating another world, one where bullies don’t exist and mothers don’t get sick. He makes a crude drawing of his window and of the graveyard beyond. He draws the large yew tree that dominates the horizon of crosses and grave markers. Someone or something whispers his name, and he looks out the window. 12:07am. Everything begins to rumble, pencils rolling across the desk and onto the floor, like it’s all being pulled toward some place outside. Conor goes to the window, opens it, and looks out toward the graveyard. The yew tree appears to be on fire. It uproots itself, tree limbs becoming arms and fists, roots and branches pulling together to create something humanoid. It looks back at him with glowing red eyes. Then it’s on the move. Bending down street lights, stomping on railroad tracks, throwing its gigantic silhouette across the side of the house. The face of the tree-monster is right outside his window now. It says, I have come to get you, Conor O’Malley. Conor is terrified, but when the tree-monster mocks him, telling him to run for his mother, everything changes. Now he’s angry. You leave her alone, he shouts, I’m not afraid of you. So the monster tears away the side of the house and reaches for him. The thing lifts him up, like King Kong and Fay Wray, with a hand made of branches and sticks. It could do almost anything now, smash him into the ground or swallow him whole. But what the giant tree-man does is unexpected. It says, I will visit you again on further nights, Conor O’Malley. I will shake your walls until you wake and then . . . I will tell you three stories. Conor looks confused. You’re going to tell me stories? I am, the giant says. I will tell you three stories, and, when I have finished my stories, you will tell me a fourth. Conor is just annoyed now, telling the giant that he doesn’t know anything about stories. But the monster persists. You will tell me a fourth, and it will be your truth. This truth will be your nightmare. Before he can protest any further, Conor is engulfed in fiery branches. Then he’s back inside his room. The wall of the house is intact, his pencils still resting on top of the monstrous drawings he’s made. Like it was all nothing more than a dream. He goes to sleep beside his mother. Mom had a thousand tales she could have told, but she never really did. That’s not to say that she wouldn’t tell anyone all about herself, because she would, often with more glorious detail than anyone really wanted to hear. We’ve always had that in common. But her written stories, at least in the beginning, were about girls and horses. She was an occasional writer, the kind that would become suddenly inspired (or pissed off) and blow the dust from the typewriter that lurked in one of the cluttered corners of our house. The familiar clack-clack-clickety-clack–ding of her old Underwood would start up again and I’d come running. I peeked over her shoulder at the words appearing on the paper. It was like magic. Though it must have been annoying as hell, she looked at me perched there beside her . . . and smiled. I wanted to know if the girl would ever get to see her horse again after the rancher moved away, but it was like Mom didn’t know the end of the story either. We would both have to wait to see what happened, she said. She told me, again and again, being a writer is about the best thing you can be. Though I still drew my dark little comic books, I’d begun to give more time to writing. It started, not unlike Mom, with tales of Lassie and tornadoes. Then I discovered STAR WARS and Stephen King, and my stories ended up like horrific soap operas set in a Judy Blume galaxy far, far away. It’s probably a good thing that they’ve all been lost. I used to tell everyone that it was all the books I’d read, or an incredible English teacher, or even Stephen King who had inspired me to write. But, really, it was watching Mom conjure her forgotten word-magic on that raggedy old typewriter. My own writing would continue, though Mom’s would not. The last story I remember her working on was called Gear Head. Based loosely on my brother, it was about a boy and his equal love for both a girl and a car, and I’m pretty sure that it involved drag racing. I’m not sure if she even finished it, but what she had was pretty damn good. It was several years after she had beaten cancer, and many more before something else would kill her. Mom was never one for giving the best advice, but she always said that people should do what makes them happy. It was hard to forget those other words too: being a writer is about the best thing you can be. I often wondered how it was that she ended up being a mother instead. Siobhan Dowd, the author who originally conceived of the novel upon which A MONSTER CALLS is based, died of breast cancer in 2007 at the age of 47. She had already spoken with her agent about writing the story, but did not live long enough to tell it. After her death, the agent approached Patrick Ness, author of the popular Chaos Walking series to finish her book. He ran with the story and ultimately won the Carnegie Medal (the British equivalent of the Newbery Award) in 2012. Focus Features bought the rights to the book and wisely hired its writer to craft the screenplay. J.A. Bayona, who had helmed the terrifying and moving Guillermo del Toro-produced film THE ORPHANAGE, was brought on to direct. Felicity Jones, fresh from her portrayal of Jyn Erso in ROGUE ONE, is nearly unrecognizable here as the cancer-stricken single mother Lizzie O’Malley. Though she appears young in many scenes, such as when her own mother shows up with a box of wigs (which she playfully models for her son), there is an unspoken darkness that creeps into her face as the movie progresses. It’s in the eyes where she really nails her performance. Sigourney Weaver is perfect as Conor’s stern grandmother, who comes to claim him as his mother’s illness becomes bad enough that she must be hospitalized. Grandma seems like the bad guy at first, like the evil witch from old-fashioned fairy tales, but sometimes the witches are not the bad guy. Weaver is an imposing woman who is nonetheless capable of subtle vulnerability. One of her most effective scenes involves a train, a stopped car en route to the hospital, and a very cathartic moment for both her and her grandson. The work of Liam Neeson can’t be overstated either, though he only appears through voice and motion capture as the tree-monster. As this ends up being an instructional film about dealing with grief, it adds even more depth to know that he lost his wife not that long ago. The greatest kudos, however, are reserved for the amazing young man who brought Conor to life, Lewis MacDougall. No amount of startling visuals matter if the main character isn’t believable, but this kid nails it. He’s in almost every scene of the film, which calls for him to reach extreme emotional depths, guiding us through anger, frustration, resignation, and grief, while never coming off as melodramatic. It’s not merely his skills as an actor, which are a combination of learned technique and innate ability, but in his appearance itself. He really does look like an older soul trapped in a younger body. Everything in this story hinges on Conor O’Malley, and he does not disappoint. It’s not a perfect movie, of course. The tree monster’s stories are shown as animation, which is all pretty breathtaking until the human figures show up. While it might be on purpose, befitting the fairly basic nature of those stories, the cartoon people still felt a little too early-2000s against the otherwise beautiful cinematography of the film. Similarly, the inevitable comeuppance of the bully, while visually satisfying, seemed incongruent with the deeper message of the film. Conor’s anger is a key element in dealing with his mother’s looming death, but it seemed a bit off-key that he unleashed most of it in the way that he did. Something subtler might have worked better here, though I cheered anyway when the monster’s shadow stretched out behind the bully and his minions. I knew that this was the last time that Conor would ever be pushed around. But, even after watching it a second time, I’m overwhelmed by A MONSTER CALLS. It reminds me a little of LABYRINTH, with Jennifer Connelly facing scary changes through a fantasy realm, or of the young girl trying to make sense of the adult world through the eyes of the Frankenstein monster in SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. This last film is one of my favorites, never failing to fill me with amazement, sadness, and the mystery of life, so, for anything to even approach this level of filmmaking . . . well, now that’s something. And it made me cry. I didn’t cry when Mom died. This might sound strange, like I’m playing at being some kind of tough-guy, or maybe even like I’m really heartless. The simple truth is that I had a lot of time to get used to the idea. When she was first diagnosed with congestive heart failure, I did some research on what was happening and what was probably going to happen. Then, when she had to have a pacemaker implanted in her chest, I learned all about them and what it means to get one. Finally, when my parents had to have an oxygen machine delivered to the house, it was obvious that she could no longer breathe without assistance. Somewhere in the midst of all this, after several trips to doctors and emergency rooms, each of them ending in hospitalization, she asked my brother and I to come see her at Bronson Methodist Hospital. She wanted to talk to us, and I knew what that meant too. With both of her sons by her side, she told us, matter-of-fact, that she was going to die. There were things that could be done, she said, but it was kind of like with cancer. Sometimes the treatment was even worse than the ailment. Besides, if she were to consider a transplant, there was little chance that she’d pass the psych evaluation. She didn’t need to remind me that she had been suicidal, a drug addict, and a nearly lifelong smoker. No one was going to give her a new heart. She asked Nick and I what we thought, as she had asked Dad, but the final decision had to rest with her. And that’s pretty much what we told her. Though she and my father considered hospice, she wanted to spend her final days at home. She wanted her husband, her dogs, and her stories with her every day. There was a nurse who came to see her twice a week, and occasional doctor visits, though it grew harder and harder for her to travel anywhere with the required oxygen machine. There was a long hose stretching from the chair where she usually sat into one of the bedrooms, where the sound of an air compressor was growling all day long. It was hard not to trip over the hose whenever I came to see her. She even made jokes about being careful with the hose, unless I wanted to snuff her out. She never stopped making jokes, really, even as her body grew more and more skeletal. When my dog – a friendly old Golden Retriever, like the kind I had grown up with – died, my girlfriend suggested having him stuffed. When I mentioned this to Mom, she laughed. Hell, you guys should have me stuffed. That way you can all argue over who gets Mom for the weekend, or who gets stuck with me. We talked a lot in those final months, though we rarely talked about what was happening. As she was a lifelong atheist, I made her promise that, if she ended up somewhere after she died, she find some way of letting me know. She made me promise that her three men would not become strangers to each other. And, before her handwriting started to fail, she wrote letters to each of us. She said that they were to be opened after she was gone. But none of this was what prepared me for her death. No, it was when I was ten years old, crouched outside the bathroom. When I reached through that open door and held her hand, while she laid sick and exhausted against the wall, that’s when I knew. Something opened up inside of me then, some kind of death blossoming. That’s what I thought about when Dad called me that morning. When, not knowing what else to say, he asked if I wanted to get out of work early. That’s what I thought about when I saw her motionless for the first time. When I felt how cold she already was and realized that, if we all go somewhere else, then she was already there. That’s what I thought about when I watched them wheeling her gurney down the sidewalk, toward the long black car waiting in the driveway. When I watched in sadness and fascination, trying to memorize all the details because they don’t happen every day, while my eyes were still dry. And that’s what I thought about when I realized this movie wasn’t just about a boy conjuring monsters to fight his bullies. When I realized it was a movie about grief, and that I had not really experienced mine. That’s what I thought about, and I cried. – j. meredith Writing is not like working construction, but it can still be hard work. There’s a lot of time, thought, and sometimes even research that goes into every article appearing here, whether it’s written by me or by someone else. If you are reading this, then it was written for you. Please take a moment to “like” it, or any other piece, and feel encouraged to leave a comment (even if it’s to disagree with what you’ve read). See larger image A Monster Calls [Blu-ray] Liam Neeson, Felicity Jones, and Sigourney Weaver star in this visually spectacular and stunningly emotional drama. Young Conor’s life takes a turn after his mother (Felicity Jones) becomes ill and he moves in with his unsympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). As an escape, Conor turns to his artwork and conjures up a 40-foot-high monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) who becomes a most unlikely ally by guiding him on a journey of courage, faith and truth that powerfully fuses imagination and reality. New From: $12.18 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.