I’m not sure who the target audience is for A Monster Calls. Gloomy kids? Masochistic adults? Particularly emo Liam Neeson fans? Whatever the case, if you fit into any of those categories—or if you just like your fairytales to come with a heaping side order of dark themes and uncomfortable truths—J.A. Bayona’s sad film might be for you.
Twelve-year-old Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives alone in the English countryside with his mother (Felicity Jones), who’s very sick with cancer. Dad (Toby Kebbell) now lives in America with his new family so he’s mostly out of the picture. Conor’s maternal grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is around, but she’s a remote and somewhat imperious figure, and, of course, she’s dealing with her own fear and grief, something Conor can’t quite comprehend. At school, Conor, who is often lost in thought or sketching his fantastical creatures into his notebook, is routinely bullied.
Conor suffers from nightmares of his house being swallowed up by the earth and his mother falling into the abyss, as he clings to her by the fingertips. Then, one night, his bedroom shakes and a giant tree monster (voiced by Neeson) lumbers toward him. The monster tells Conor that he’s going to visit him at night and tell him three stories. Then it will be Conor’s turn to tell a story of his own—the story of his dream.
The stories that the monster tells are allegories, but not in the typical sense. There are no clear-cut villains or heroes. These are parables about the unfairness of life, the randomness of fate, and the fact that, while it is human nature to seek concrete answers, they are often beyond our grasp.
Neeson does great voicework as the monster, who manages to be both a menacing and comforting presence in Colin’s life, and the CGI is topnotch—the monster has fiery innards and tentacle-like branches and a palpable sense of weight and scale (although wags on the Internet have noted that he bears more than a passing resemblance to Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot). Newcomer MacDougall has a pale, still face and sensitive, watchful eyes—he doesn’t overdo it, making the scenes where he does break down all the more affecting.
In the film’s best scene, Conor, who is now staying with his grandmother, spirals out of control with rage, trashing her sitting room in, yes, truly monstrous fashion. She comes home and slowly approaches him; he stares back at her, dumbfounded by what he has done. But instead of yelling at him, she angrily smashes a shelf herself, then goes upstairs and weeps quietly in her room. It will be a while before the grandmother and grandson will fully take comfort in each other, but this is a first step toward some sort of understanding.
A Monster Calls is a fairytale about the bogusness of fairytales—about the reality of unhappy endings and the darkness and light that lives within us all. Guess your kid has to learn about existentialism eventually, right?