Dying parents, bullies at school, and imaginary friends who are there when times get rough. We’ve all lost count as to how many coming-of-age dramas have tackled these situations faced by lonely adolescents. “A Monster Calls,” in its basest form, is no different, but director J.A. Bayona is more than capable of making these familiar beats hit in refreshing ways. Like the young protagonist, Bayona is faced with many hills to climb, and though he stumbles here and there, “A Monster Calls” still succeeds as a beautifully rendered tale of how human beings respond to painful situations.
12-year-old Conor O’Malley (newcomer Lewis MacDougall) has more on his shoulders than anyone his age should have. His mother (Felicity Jones) is terminally ill, his father (Toby Kebbell) lives across the Atlantic Ocean, and he is hounded relentlessly by a small band of bullies at school. To cope, Conor shuffles along with headphones that tune him out of his dreary surroundings, plus he spends a good deal of downtime drawing - and skillfully so, thanks to his mother’s artistic genes. One night, Conor is visited by a towering arboreal humanoid (Liam Neeson) - think a taller, educated Groot with a powerful baritone not unlike that of Optimus Prime - who claims that he will tell the boy three stories before Conor must tell him a fourth. He may not know it yet, but these fantastical tales of heroism, faith, and, most of all, death will ultimately bring Conor to the brutally honest truth about his grief, thus preparing him for insurmountable pain.
Bayona opens the film as most directors tasked with this kind of story do, with the clearest possible indicator of the boy’s state of mind as well as what will surely follow. Conor desperately holds on to his mother as she hangs from a cliff while the world around them crumbles. At the moment she falls, he wakes up, sweaty, panting, and full of tears. It’s a brief but effective opening that informs the rest of the film, or at least everything we see whenever the Monster is not around. Conor’s suffering in the real world is more or less the same ol’ same ol’, visiting plot points that were better-handled by the likes of Guillermo del Toro, but Bayona piles on the darkness of these moments when you least expect it. The most harrowing image I can immediately recall is Conor witnessing his ailing, shriveled mother being assisted in the removal of her shirt while in the hospital. It’s PG-13 for a reason, kids.
Where the film falters the most is in its slight overcrowding of themes and tropes of the genre. Bayona’s handling of Conor’s life at school is fair, but not for one second did I believe that the bully would go out of his way to pick on someone whom he knows is already suffering enough at home. There’s also a montage of Conor sketching his monster following a touching scene in which he witnesses his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) watching old tapes of him as a toddler being taught how to draw by his mother. It’s a well-intentioned sequence, but its lightness and fetishization of the artistic process feels wildly out of place. The emotional build-up is also a bit slow, but there is some remarkable work from the cast to keep you invested in the proceedings before that gut-punch of a climax rolls around.
MacDougall is a natural; not once does his anguish feel contrived in the slightest. I challenge you not to tear up after hearing him belt a scream that has been brewing inside him for what feels like an eternity. Weaver is displays some of the best work she’s done in a while. Watch her carefully as she reacts to an unfortunate consequence of Conor’s rage. Jones has no problem playing a sad, mousy little woman for the second time, taking the heartache of her character in “The Theory of Everything” to a whole new level. Not surprisingly, the finest work here comes from Neeson, doubling his efforts as both the voice of and motion capture performer for the Monster. To hear the rumbling bass of his mesmerizing intonations fill the movie theater is magical experience unto itself.
What “A Monster Calls” understands better than most fantasy films is that the line between reality and fiction may not be so thin; in fact, it might not be there at all. There are indicators that Conor’s interactions with the Monster are nothing more than daydreams to guide him through his grief, but, as the Monster itself so elegantly puts it, who’s to say that what we dream isn’t real? Fans of “Harry Potter” will immediately recall Dumbledore’s response to the boy wizard’s question on whether or not his heavenly vision is real. “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why should that mean that it’s not real?” Bayona, in flawed but wonderful fashion, allows us to accept dreams and fables as more than just mere extensions of our reality. They are, in fact, part of what keeps our individual realities in check so that our pain can be understood if not conquered. If you’re not completely enraptured by “A Monster Calls” at first, I can guarantee you will be just before the credits roll. Oh, and be sure to bring a tissue.