A Monster Calls is a difficult look at young grief

Your enjoyment…well, enjoyment is the wrong word. Your respect for A Monster Calls runs entirely contingent on how okay you are with the idea of cinematic manipulation. If you can feel your strings being pulled and you chafe against it, then good luck. If you’re fine with the onions being chopped directly under your eyes, then A Monster Calls has a lot of riches to uncover.

Based on Patrick Ness’ YA novel (and adapted for the screen by him too), Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a young boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) in the late throws of an aggressive and terminal cancer. Connor’s life is a laundry list of coming-of-age problems: An absent father, a dying mother, a grandmother who seems to not care for him, and bullies who beat him up at school.

One night at precisely 12:07, a towering tree monster (Liam Neeson) comes to him and promises to tell him three stories. After those three, Connor must tell him a fourth, the truth he’s always known and the truth he tries to hide.

That’s a sufficient fairy tale set-up, much better than some other purported fables around Christmas time. It’s through this that A Monster Calls finds its way to its story and into what it’s trying to do.

This is a movie where I really keep in mind how much any given viewer’s mileage may vary, but there are a few things that hold true no matter what and those are what help A Monster Calls become the difficult film to find thoughts on that it is.

Lewis MacDougall is a phenomenal lead, giving a very real and nuanced performance throughout. His expressiveness helps you link with him very quickly and he seems to embody a very deep empathy for what the pain he’s going through actually means. He seems like a real, sort of precocious teenager trying to do the best he can with the unimaginable. Everyone else in the cast is almost entirely serving his performance, but it’s good enough to be worth it and all of them are particular able.

This is a film given impeccable visual craft. Director J.A. Bayona will be most praised for the watercolor animation sequences that tell the monster’s stories which are flat-out gorgeous and evocative. But there is something really quietly stunning about the bleak, gray world that he lives in, the way it feels just the right kind of oppressive and the way it opens up at the right times.

But the thing that makes it difficult is that J.A. Bayona fundamentally doesn’t trust his audience or his story. A Monster Calls has amazing stuff that it can’t stop pushing on you. It underlines everything with overpowering music or a tearful close-up or a lingering glance. A Monster Calls is manipulative, yes, and that manipulation is in its DNA. It can be overpowering, making you feel like the film really does think that if it’s not making you cry, then YOU must be the monster.

So, it comes down to how much you think that works on you. How much you’re willing to be the film’s puppet? If you don’t, then the film holds no more feeling or pleasure. It’s going to be a YA Lifetime film, a button pusher for the sake of pushing buttons.

But let’s say it does work for you, that you’re willing to let it really press on you and start one of those seriously ugly cries. What are you gonna get out of it?

Then A Monster Calls is the way that the young have to deal with the complexity of life. It uses that very heavy grief to deal with something larger, with learning how the darker and more difficult aspects of people and of life exist. In this, it’s explaining how children come to grasp the good and the bad that exists in and for everyone.

Sure, it’s coming at it essentially sideways, teasing it out and drenching it in tearjerking schmaltz and CGI animation. But it’s in that way that what it has to say sneaks up on you, makes the realization hit all the harder. And it’s breaking down difficult concepts into the simplest way it can be told.

I don’t necessarily know if this is a movie for kids, there’s too much darkness and dourness, which is why I think it’s odd that so much discussion seems to be focused around that. It’s a Young Adult story, one that uses a recent memory to grasp onto new and seemingly frightening concepts. It’s a story for the change, when the world isn’t so much the good and the bad, but all the shades of it.

Grade: B