Four out of five stars
“A Monster Calls” is an engrossing tale about the stress a British boy named Connor (Lewis MacDougal) endures during a perfect storm of preteen angst and misery. Connor’s single mother (Felicity Jones) is dying, he’s bullied at school, and his strict grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is pressuring him to accept his mother’s fate.
Situations like these could mentally and physically wear down even the most well-adjusted adult, let alone the average 12-year-old, who doesn’t usually have the tools to deal with such dire situations. But what Connor does have is the imagination of a brilliant young artist, since he is, in fact, a brilliant young artist. He also has, a few hundred yards from his window, an enormous yew tree that sits in the middle of a cemetery. Most 12-year-olds don’t grow up with sort of Gothic view from their window, either.
It’s the yew tree – with the strong, soothing voice of Liam Neeson – that comes to Connor’s aid. To be sure, the tree is threatening and scary at first, but it’s not there to scare Connor – it’s there to tell him three stories. After the third story, Connor is obligated to tell the tree a story. The tree visits Connor at the same time every day until their stories are done.
One thing I’ll say about this tree: He’s a terrific storyteller. When he shares his stories with Connor, he picks the boy up and wraps him in his branches, demanding that the boy close his eyes. The stories, a break from Connor’s grim reality, are rendered in colorful and simplistic animation. It’s an interesting metaphor for how a 12-year-old might decode a complex predicament.
While an argument can be made that “A Monster Calls” is manipulative, you can’t help but get wrapped up in young Lewis MacDougal’s audacious performance. The Gothic scenescape and sound design, coupled with the kinetic emotion MacDougal brings to the screen, envelopes you in this boy’s imagination and pain, while Felicity Jones as Connor’s mom will simply break your heart. “A Monster Calls” is cathartic and thrilling to witness all at the same time.