A generation raised post-Spielberg’s “E.T.” has come to expect a certain amount of catharsis or salvation from stories in which an unhappy child is visited by a fantastic creature. J.A. Bayona’s “A Monster Calls,” to its credit, resists a lot of the sentimentality and focuses largely on the pain that cannot be diminished or wiped away by some kind of paranormal visitation. If the film makes you cry, Bayona is certainly not there waiting a hug, tissue and reassurance.
Patrick Ness’ screenplay, adapted from his own novel, takes a deceptively familiar premise and finds creative ways to subvert our expectations. The young protagonist, Lewis MacDougall’s Conor, is “too old to be a kid, too young to be a man” yet forced to grapple with the rapidly progressing cancer of his mother (Felicity Jones). At the same time, he receives visitations from a giant talking tree (voice of Liam Neeson) who reads him what appears to be an instructive fairy tale.
But as the story progresses, unfolding before our eyes in creative animation, the true purpose is revealed. It’s a tragedy, not an inspirational fable, and the tree is preparing him for an inevitable loss. Conor’s resistance to the message illustrates the human capacity for deluding ourselves into comforting lies and delusions to shield ourselves from the pain of reality.
His worldview shifts from black and white to gray as well as from sensical to paradoxical over the course of the film, two journeys we commonly associate with the coming-of-age genre. But “A Monster Calls” dwells in the messiness, hurt and loss rather than glossing over it – often times at the cost of being traditionally satisfying or crowd-pleasing. The maturity suggests a film perhaps more aimed at adults looking with retrospection rather than children viewing with a forward glance. B+ /