In A Monster Calls, a preteen boy in a rambling English countryside manor is visited several times by a beast of his imagining as his mother battles terminal cancer. This is a rough yet kindly monster, not here to feed off the boy's grief or make it disappear but rather to help him harness and manage it. But he certainly looks scary, emerging as he does from the gangly tree that rests near the grave plot at the top of the hill, with bright-red eyes and a towering height, walking on roots that creak and crumble with every step.
Sure, sure, you've heard this before: drop some real death into a pretty children's fantasy and you're in sad-teen awards heaven, right? But this one will surprise you. The fact that A Monster Calls deals in real fear, and not just tears, gives it a toughness in the face of despair—and, not incidentally, an edge for an older audience that may be wary of boarding another Bridge to Terabithia. In the very first scene, young Conor (Lewis MacDougall, Pan) dreams of the ground underneath the graves falling away, with some kind of gaping, total blackness reaching out for him no matter how much he tries to scramble to safety. Here and elsewhere, elements of the macabre hold the sentimentality in place until we least expect the ground to give out.
Conor lives alone with his Mum, played by Felicity Jones — who's as magnetic and fearless in this as she is in Star Wars: Rogue One. The two are a symbiotic pair, watching old filmstrips together each evening (Conor takes a particular liking to King Kong, and his empathy for the giant, misunderstood ape gives a hint as to why certain other beasts don't scare him). Though they've danced around the slow but sure progression of Mum's illness, luxuriating in false hope from doctors when it suits them, Conor's realist grandma (the great Sigourney Weaver, brittle and broken) has started insisting they take necessary steps for the future. And it's around this time, as Conor shudders to think of moving into his grandma's stuffy old-person home and what that would mean for his mother if he did, that the monster makes his first of many appearances outside the boy's bedroom window at a few minutes after midnight.
Because A Monster Calls began life as a multiple-award-winning young adult novel, you can expect that storytelling and morality will play large roles in the healing process. And indeed, the monster (who is played by a motion-captured Liam Neeson, in a voice filled with gravel and earth) acclimates Conor to his world by telling him a series of three seemingly unrelated stories, while insisting that the fourth must come from him. You can also expect that characters who initially appear one-dimensional will, thanks to the magic of the stories and the beast's on-the-nose interpretations, take on new complexities. "There's not always a good guy," the monster says, a funny thing coming from the creature who looks like he should be the bad guy.
But screenwriter Patrick Ness, adapting his own book, and director J.A. Bayona, drawing on some of the Gothic visual demons he first uncovered in his breakout horror film The Orphanage, keep the action cinematic, transposing the monster's stories into beautifully animated sequences of clashing royal families and devious apothecaries. Watercolors become a lovely motif in the fantasy stories, as well as in the dark, brooding drawings that are the preferred doodles of both Conor and his mother. And MacDougall, a hell of a young talent, gives a lead performance imbued with both compassion and anger — so much anger, unleashed in furious bursts against everyone in range. In many ways he becomes the monster, if he wasn't there already, yet the fact that the film gives him permission to indulge in destruction is profoundly moving.
Other small touches paint a depth that doesn't always find its way into so-called "children's" films. There is, of course, a bully who beats Conor up regularly at school, but his sad-eyed expressions before he begins the poundings betray a kindness, or maybe just some other sense of passion, he doesn't fully understand. The boyish estranged father (Toby Kebbell) also comes to visit, and though he lacks the necessary responsibility to watch over Conor himself, he's far from the deadbeat parent we've grown accustomed to. Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot a plausible explanation for the monster's voice.
Why is it so rare to find films "for children" with this kind of maturity and attention to technique? (And why is this one rated PG-13 for "thematic content," as though it wasn't made for children at all?) Perhaps it's because A Monster Calls comes from a place of authenticity — the originator of the book idea that Ness finished was children's author Siobhan Dowd, who herself died of cancer before she could write it. Though the film is very different from this awards season's other massive grief-stricken opus, Manchester by the Sea, the two movies speak to the truth of how their respective age-ranges wrestle with this darkness. And with the peculiar application of fantasy and fright, tough teens may handle this one better than some adults. So: take your parents if they can handle it, but some guidance is suggested.