Grief is a beast. For young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), it’s a gargantuan tree-creature that he conjures from his sketches. On the cusp of being a teenager, Conor gets bullied at school and butts heads with his rigid grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) at home, where most devastating of all, Conor’s mum Lizzie (Felicity Jones) is succumbing to cancer. The only respite is inward, the only coping mechanism, his imagination.
A monster calls. What at first appears to be a threatening behemoth that rips itself from the distant English countryside and approaches the house with embers ablaze deep within its dendriform, Groot-like appendages and eye sockets, is a metaphor of Patrick Ness’s low fantasy realm. Voiced by Liam Neeson, the monster of director J.A. Bayona’s film “A Monster Calls”, which Ness adapted from his own YA novel of the same name, is summoned to tell the boy three stories that will presumably get him through his denial.
Presented in stunning watercolor work are these parables, the story of an ancient kingdom with kings and princes and an evil queen and deception, and another about a healer who refuses to heal when a man loses his faith. This doesn’t make much of an impression on Conor, who fails to see the point of tall tales when all he wants is for someone so save mum.
As the story comes together, Conor’s rage boils over, directed at his father (Toby Kebbell), a decent man who comes to visit from his new home in Los Angeles, but most acutely aimed at a cruel boy at school (James Melville) who torments him mercilessly without regard to his mother’s worsening condition.
All three elements of the film—reality, the monster, and the monster’s stories—are marbled together in an effective, handsome, sometimes tear-inducing production. Part fable, part drama, “A Monster Calls” boasts an impressive debut for young MacDougall—particularly in the company of Jones, Weaver, and Kebbell—and a rattling voice performance from Neeson, who also did some motion capture for the creature.
The bond between Conor and mum is established very early on–central to our investment in the film, no matter how impressive the monster FX may be–as they watch “King Kong” on the old reel-to-reel together, which makes its own statement about smashing and destroying things that we don’t understand. Her skin pallid and lips drained of color, the “Rogue One” actor is hardly recognizable. By the same token, director Bayona’s mulit-genre-faceted film doesn’t seek to depress its audience; Neeson’s thunderous voice and MacDougall’s compelling durability won’t let it. For a film dealing in the reality of death, “Monster” does a great job of painting things in a different, very creative way without obscuring the message.
Area Theaters December 6th
—M. Parsons 2017