Don't be fooled into thinking that the darkly cartoonish magical realism of A Monster Calls is for children only. Patrick Ness adapted his own children's novel of the same name for the screen, and director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) brings its confronting themes and its take on fairytale morality to life.
Lewis MacDougall plays thirteen-year-old Connor O'Malley. Looking after his sick mother (Felicity Jones) and battling his matriarchal grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) at home and bullied mercilessly at school, he spends a lot of time alone drawing pictures and listening to music. The precociously stoic young man is suffering from a recurring nightmare that he dares not acknowledge while he's awake.
The appearance of the Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), apparently a centuries old spirit disguised as a yew tree at the nearby cemetery, forces Connor to confront his fears. The intimidating but seemingly friendly monster promises to tell Connor three tales, after which he must tell his own tale honestly. It's a set-up befitting a fairy tale, but A Monster Calls openly takes issue with the black-and-white, good and bad mentality of children's stories.
Bad things happen to good people, without reason and without retribution. That is what Connor faces as he confronts the possible death of his loving mother, and he is desperate to find a villain, even if it is his own grandmother or his absent father (Toby Kebbell). The first two tales that are told to him by the Monster are animated in a beautifully distinctive style halfway between watercolour paintings and CGI animation also find him searching for a villain that simply may not be there.
It's simple enough for children, but A Monster Calls never feels obvious or manipulative. Its emotional pull comes from real agony and inexpressible inner turmoil, portrayed with by MacDougall with a wisdom beyond his years. A crop of great performances are what takes this from a good film to a great film. Liam Neeson balances fire-and-brimstone sermonising with real tenderness, Felicity Jones is pitiable but not pitiful, and Sigourney Weaver delivers a nuanced performance despite an uneven English accent.
A Monster Calls unpacks emotions far more complex than just fear of death. It is also filled with base urges like rage and relief, uncontrollable feelings that force us to question our own love and humanity. And yet it is still accessible, tightly constructed, and open-hearted enough to resonant with a younger moviegoing audience who will learn something very vital about the way the world works.
If films like A Monster Calls became a blueprint for a new kind of fairytale, then the next generation may find themselves instilled with even more sensitivity and propensity for caring. J. A. Bayona and Patrick Ness have delivered a masterful and resonant fantasy movie that is more honest and touching than many of its more realistic peers.
A Monster Calls opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday July 27th.