“A Monster Calls” is unflinchingly honest, a harrowing tale of a boy who yearns for escapism but instead receives an unwanted but much-needed dose of reality. There isn’t a wasted word in its script, the cinematography ranges from gorgeous to bleak to terrifying, and at its core is an outstanding performance by 14-year-old Lewis MacDougall, starring in only his second film. In fact, he upstages a sci-fi legend without even trying.
The life of English boy Conor O’Malley (MacDougall) is, well, shit. His mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from terminal cancer (his father left the two of them long ago), he is bullied at school, and as his mother gets sicker, he is forced to spend more time with his stuffy grandmother (aforementioned sci-fi legend Sigourney Weaver). He stays up late drawing as a means of avoiding his recurring nightmare. One night shortly after midnight, he is visited by a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), which comes to life from the yew tree that is visible from his bedroom window. The monster tells Conor that he is going to tell him three stories, and then Conor is going to tell the monster a fourth one, and the story must be true. The stories the monster tells Conor do not offer him any comfort, and as his mother’s condition worsens, the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred to the point where Conor has difficulty separating the two, acting out in one world when he thinks he’s in the other.
J.A. Bayona was the perfect person to direct this film. Between his 2012 film “The Impossible” (gut-wrenching) and 2007’s “The Orphanage” (luscious but spooky), Bayona knew exactly what this movie needed. He makes a film that is both fantastical and very, very real, while finding a tonal balance that seems, well, impossible. His next film is the sequel to “Jurassic World.” Universal will give him complete creative control, including screenwriter approval, if they know what’s good for them.
Could they really not find an English actress in her 60s to play Conor’s grandmother? Weaver has done great things, but she cannot get the accent to stick to save her life. Helen Mirren is only four years older than Weaver. Imelda Staunton is three years older. Were their asking prices too high? They couldn’t have been, could they? Either way, Weaver is borderline unwatchable here, except for the one scene where she doesn’t say a word and speaks volumes at the same time. That’s beside the point, though. The role of the grandmother does not need to be filled by a star. She could have been literally anyone, provided they can do a proper English accent. That they went for star power was a DreamWorks Animation-level move, which is to say, a mistake.
MacDougall has a tight leash here, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at him. He plays this part as if he’s lived it (though from what we can tell, he hasn’t, thank goodness), and better yet, he’s a Scottish kid doing a better English accent than the far-more-experienced Weaver. He will likely be overlooked come awards season because of his age, and that is a shame. Jones doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but the little screen time she has should be enough to net the film an Academy Award nomination for makeup, because this 33-year-old looked completely ravaged in every stage of her regression. Neeson, meanwhile, has the best job of all. He gets to use that fantastic voice of his without any affectation, while dispensing wisdom with every word. And if you look closely, Neeson appears in a different way as well.
“A Monster Calls” is by no means an easygoing viewing experience, but this is not to be missed. It may appear to only have a target audience of tweens and teens who are already living their worst nightmares, but there is a universal truth in its message that everyone would benefit from hearing.