A MONSTER CALLS begins, fittingly enough, with a child’s nightmare. We don’t have the context yet, but the primal fear gripping the boy clinging to the hand of a woman hanging over an abyss neatly sums up the emotional journey to come. The boy is Connor (Lewis MacDougall), and the woman, as we will shortly discover, is his mother (Felicity Jones), who is slowly, painfully dying of cancer. Told through Connor’s eyes, we will understand on a starkly visceral level, his intense feelings of powerlessness, confusion, anger, and, yes, fear of the unknown that looms over what will become of him if his mother dies.
Not that it’s being left to chance. To Connor’s chagrin, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is taking him in, and his father (Toby Kebbell), who now lives with a new family half a world away in Los Angeles, has dropped everything to be with him as his mother faces more and more drastic and desperate measures to keep her alive.
Connor is a smart boy, quiet and very clever as he works out his feelings with his careful drawings. It doesn’t keep him from clinging to the denial of what is the inevitable. When the giant yew tree that grows in the neighboring cemetery comes to life, complete with glowing eyes and trampling feet, the visit he pays Connor is less frightening than a relief from the stress of his life. The giant, with the soft but forceful voice of Liam Neeson, demands that Connor listen to three stories, Connor balks but doesn’t refuse. When he demands that afterwards Connor tell him a fourth story that will reveal Connor’s truth, the boy is confused, and tell him so in a defiant show of petulance.
Dream state and waking life are inextricably mixed as the film unfolds. Scenes shift showing Connor and his Monster, arms branching out to create a cage-work around rooms, garden walls crushed beneath woody feet; and Connor alone, but under the Monster’s spell. What is undeniably real in any moment is the boy’s emotional state, personified by the Monster, the Monster allowing Connor to channel his inner turmoil, even embrace it, even as the result is a bully being beaten, or a room in his Grandmother’s carefully ordered house reduced to shambles. The psychological truth is never in doubt.
Also never in doubt is the sharp edge of anguish. Connor’s bully (James Melville) is ruthless, his face going into and out of focus as the pain he inflicts is shown in all its sadism, including the moment when his cool condescension reduces Connor to an invisible being, which hurts the most. MacDougall gives a primal, fearless performance. His demeanor, and especially his eyes, betraying to the platitude-delivering adults around their inability to reach, much less comfort, the boy. It’s the way he shows Connor desperately clinging to hope in the face of the inevitable that is so heartbreaking to watch. As is the way he gets himself out of bed in the morning, does the laundry, and makes his own breakfast so as not to disturb his mother at the beginning of the film. The tenderness of his regard for her, and her for him his wanting to stay in the ramshackle house virtually on his own rather than choose the security of an ordered life with his grandmother is stirring because, not in spite of, being doomed.
For all the breathtaking visual effects of bringing the yew tree to vibrant, creaking life, or the kinetic animation of the three tales the Monster tells of princes and witches, it is the emotional stakes that are most vivid, and the actors who know the importance of silence to convey the gravity of a moment. Weaver in particular, who keeps a barely contained veneer of calm to a character suffering too deeply for mere words, and who is, in many ways, just as fearful as Connor is about what losing her daughter will bring. It’s an effect all the more potent as her soigné appearance deteriorates even as her affect remains the same. Jones is equally good, each movement of her frail body obviously painful, but she makes it clear that she is not allowing it to extinguish her palpable passion for life one second before she has to.
A MONTSTER CALLS embraces a world that has no pat answers, nor easily pigeon-holed heroes and villains. It’s a daring complexity for a fable aimed at children. It’s also a refreshingly truthful one about the unfairness of life, about its randomness, and how to accept and to navigate it. It might be overwhelming for the younger members of that same audience, but for everyone else, it is a poetically thought-provoking film that finds beauty in grief, and relief in acceptance.