There is, appropriately enough, a giant monster in A Monster Calls. But you won't find any true monsters, not the kind we should be afraid of. There aren't any bad people in this dark fairy tale about love and loss, told through the eyes of a boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall, a rare find), who is going through more than any boy his age should have to. The strength of this beautiful and yes painful film is how it uses grim fantasy to teach that sometimes it's okay to let the monster in all of us out.
Adapted by author Patrick Ness and directed by J.A. Bayona, A Monster Calls weaves a story that will resonate with anyone who has had to overcome terrible, debilitating grief. That is what Conor faces as his mother (a heartbreaking Felicity Jones) deals with a terminal illness he doesn't want to accept. His estranged father (Toby Kebbell) is off in America with his new family, and when the inevitable occurs Conor will have to live with his strict grandma (Sigourney Weaver) who he doesn't like much. Oh, and did I mention that he's bullied at school? There are no easy answers coming, so Conor decides to make one of his own by conjuring up a monster. A real one. A gigantic tree creature (voiced by Liam Neeson) that uproots from the earth and stomps to Conor's aid. The roaring Monster agrees to help Conor deal with his pain by telling him three distinct stories on separate nights. The catch is that on the fourth night Conor must tell one of his own.
Sound a little bit ridiculous? I thought so, too, but you won't feel that way after A Monster Calls wrings out every last teardrop. You should know going in that this is not your typical movie about a boy and his monster. This isn't warm and cuddly like Pete's Dragon or The BFG; it's a story that takes us into the dark inner life of an anguished child, where fantasy is the only escape from a reality too awful to endure. And we all need that kind of place sometimes. The Monster's stories are told in vivid, painterly fashion like little movies unto themselves. Each comes with its own lesson that Conor will need to learn as part of becoming an adult. And we all know that part of growing up means facing the things we want to least.
Is the film overly sentimental at times? Absolutely, but it is balanced by the shocking honesty of Conor's anger. Kids at his age are full of rage at everything they cannot control, and a big part of maturity is learning to accept that rage and refocus it. For Conor it comes out in terrible bursts of destructive fury, capable of destroying everything around him even those he loves dear. A Monster Calls might be too advanced of a movie for some children, but those who are around Conor's age; too young to be a man yet too old to be a child, will learn a valuable lesson. Fantasy can be as substantial and vital as reality.
From the gorgeous water color artwork to the emotive presence of The Monster (Neeson's gravelly voice has never held more weight), everything about the film is like watching one of Ness's books unfold on the screen. While the cast is uniformly excellent (Seriously, try not to cry at Jones in the latter scenes) this is a rare occasion when a child actor surpasses his elder co-stars. MacDougall is a revelation here, going from sorrow to boiling rage at the drop of a hat, and occasionally both at the same time. We don't often see a defining performance from an actor so young but MacDougall impresses so greatly that it will be hard to forget. In the end, it's not sadness but his bravery in the face of terrible tragedy that breaks us down and leaves us sobbing. A Monster Calls tells us that it's okay to let it all out; that fear of our emotions must never control us.
Rating: 4 out of 5