Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, voice of Liam Neeson
Though there are certainly arresting, memorable moments, it’s difficult to understand who A Monster Calls is for. It’s certainly not a film I could imagine anyone wanting to watch repeatedly.
Conor, an English child (MacDougall), is witnessing his mother (Jones) slowly, painfully succumb to cancer. As a result, his grief leaves him damaged, unable to cope with a steely grandmother (Weaver), a mostly absent dad (Kebbell), and a few psychopathic bullies.
A Monster Calls is a special effects dream. It’s also a dark, dense, overwhelmingly depressing fairy tale with no moral. “Jump in the car, kiddies! We’re going to the movies! Be prepared to bawl your eyes out!”
Never mind that the bullies couldn’t care less that the boy’s Mom is dying. Because everyone else tells Conor to feel whatever he’s feeling. They allow his sullenness and his destructive fits of rage. Because…well, dying mommy…
For his part, Conor bottles up and escapes into his drawings – an art he shares with his mom. After a while, he draws a tree-monster (Neeson), who shares some strange folk tales tied to Conor. The monster comes to life one night to taunt and scare the child. The monster will tell Conor three stories, and then Conor must tell the monster one horrible truth, or Conor dies along with his mom.
So, the two timetables driving this story is the mother’s demise and the telling of the stories.
In essence, the film is a complex view about grief, one that doesn’t always make complete sense. But then, grief doesn’t make sense, either. A Monster Calls would somewhat work for older kids, some teenagers, and even some adults. Most of the world, though, will love the look while squirming through the gritty, gloomy subject.
On the acting front, newcomer MacDougall’s Conor avoids all the clichés of other difficult coming-of-age films. Jones is admirably sensible as Conor’s terminal mom. However, Kebbell (more of a comedian) slumps through the almost pointless role of the divorced daddy. And poor Sigourney is just deeply, horribly miscast. Though she does give her damnedest to play an icy English grandmother with touches of intimidation and anal retention. Unfortunately, her accent is sloppy, and one could instantly come up with a list of other actresses (actual English people) who would’ve played this part miles better.
Overall, this fairy tale feel like things more dreamt by visual effects studios than a 12-year-old boy.
That’s not to say film lovers won’t find much to admire. Spanish director J.A. Bayona proves again that he has a powerful grip on unforgettable visuals. (He did the same in the Spanish film The Orphanage and in the tsunami flick The Impossible.) The elaborate tree monster, the light around Conor’s English village, and the unfolding destruction of Conor’s private world are all amazing to watch.