Stories hold the key to overcoming adversity on the road to adulthood

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

A Monster Calls
Opens Jan. 6

One could characterize A Monster Calls as a Guillermo del Toro-type film that sets itself apart by delivering something other than platitudes (Del Toro’s work is showy, but lacks depth). Here is a movie perhaps too challenging for its target audience, early teens, but that’s bound to hit home with grown-ups.

A Monster Calls targets a common yet very slippery milestone: the moment when life becomes complex. It tackles the subject in the only reasonable way available — by using a Groot-like figure filled with lava and a penchant for storytelling.

Conor (Lewis McDougall) is having a rough time. His mother (Felicity Jones, far cry from Jyn Erso in Rogue One) is dying of cancer, but neither she nor her son is willing to acknowledge it. The prospect of living with Grandma (Sigourney Weaver at her most severe) is not particularly enticing, but Conor’s borderline-absent dad is not a possibility. The cherry on the cake is the bullying the boy must endure at school.

Something has to give. Seemingly, it’s Conor’s mental health, as a coniferous monster voiced by Liam Neeson starts visiting him at night. It’s not immediately clear if the creature is friend or foe, but one thing is certain: the tree loves a good yarn. A deal is struck. The monster will tell Conor three stories in exchange for a single truth, the one the boy is not willing to admit but is eating him on the inside.

A Monster Calls wouldn’t work if Lewis McDougall wasn’t able to embody the transformation of a boy whose world goes from binary to multifaceted. Grandma may not be the most nurturing person around, but wants the best for him. Dad (Toby Kebbell, RocknRolla) loves him, but refuses to take him in. The one kid in school who could relate to his agony is the nastiest bully.

Even more compelling is Conor’s reaction to his axis shifting: unbridled anger, rooted in fear. The kid is not cute nor huggable. He is more human than that. The realization he may have put his faith in the wrong people is heartbreaking.

Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) benefits from having a strong script to work with, unlike in his previous effort, The Impossible. A Monster Calls is a very tight affair. The short stories that punctuate the film exist to move the story forward. They are a notch obvious, but then again, the target audience is tormented 13-year olds.

Visually, A Monster Calls is gorgeous. While the story takes place in present day, the English countryside gives the movie a timeless feel. It plays like Henry James on steroids. Portions of the film (the monster’s tales) are animated, but hardly break with the cold, stark ether in which the story unfolds.

Bayona’s deft touch keeps the waterworks from flowing until the end. But when they do, it’s a powerful thing. According to A Monster Calls, developing character as you leave childhood behind is an extremely painful process, but one that pays off in the long run.