A Monster Calls begins in the middle of two nightmares. The first is literal, as young Conor (Lewis MacDougall) dreams of the earth ripping apart and a church falling inside. The second nightmare is figurative but no less real: His mother is dying.
Preparing for the death of a parent you love, at any age, is one of the most awful and terrifying things one can experience. Yet it's worse when you're a child of divorce and your father has started a new family an ocean away in America. It's worse when the only other family you have for support is an uptight grandmother who seems more worried about the safety of her material possessions than your happiness. It's worse when you're bullied at school, but worse still when your teachers only ever look at you with pity.
What Conor needs to get through all of this, unbeknownst to him, is a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). This particular monster is a giant, powerful-looking yew tree, but Conor is upset when he learns that the monster has not come to smite his enemies -- it's come to tell him stories.
These stories are fairy tales with dark twists, the point of which Conor doesn't fully grasp until the final story is told. They're shown in a beautiful (if occasionally unsettling, considering the unfortunate events they depict) watercolor style, evoking the imagination of a child and coupling it with the complexity that comes with being an adult. In these stories he learns that royal heroes may not always be pure, and even wicked witches might be sympathetic.
He has to learn that in real life, what we really end up with is "messily ever after."
That push and pull of youth versus adulthood is much of what makes A Monster Calls such an emotional journey. It's not a traditional coming-of-age story. It's the story of a kid who has to grow up way too fast, but he can't do it without first confronting some uncomfortable truths about both himself and the world as a whole.
MacDougall skillfully rises to the challenge of portraying this struggle, carrying the emotional weight that the story demands, and displaying a solid range between deep sadness and intense anger. He has help from the wonderful Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, Rogue One), playing his mother, and Sigourney Weaver as his often-antagonistic grandmother. But the entire film hinges on MacDougall's performance, and he doesn't disappoint.
The story is less reliant on the film's visuals, but nonetheless there's an artistry to the way A Monster Calls looks. The obvious example is the monster itself, made of bark and towering over a house, but there are other special effects sprinkled throughout (not to mention the animated fairy tales) that give scenes a sort of magic that softens some emotional blows and makes others hit harder.
A Monster Calls is based on a novel of the same name by Patrick Ness (though the idea came from author Siobhan Dowd, before her unfortunate death from breast cancer). For full disclosure, I read the book shortly after the untimely death of my own mother, and while I was much older than Conor is during the story, it was still a trait I shared with him that made me especially empathetic. This made me more vulnerable to the story's themes, yes, but it also allowed me to see just how true they were. Because as much as we might want to deny it, anyone in Conor's shoes harbors some of the same emotions as he does, no matter how old we are.
For the most part, the film version is a beautiful adaptation of a wonderful novel, hitting the same notes that make it both inspiring and crushing. It changes very little from the source material, though it does remove one character and adds a touching but wholly unnecessary epilogue. Good luck seeing it without getting emotional.
A MONSTER CALLS (A-)
PG-13 (for thematic content and some scary images). 108 minutes. In wide release.