Since I became a parent, I've found that films that place kids in peril, or linger on their suffering, have a disproportionate effect on me. If the story is honest and artful, I'm a wreck and can barely see the screen through the blur of my tears. If the story is cheap or manipulative, an itchy anger starts percolating.
Parents will move though both these phases during A MONSTER CALLS, a visually dazzling modern fable that puts its twelve-year-old protagonist in a cruel spot. Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is a deeply unhappy soul. Too old to be a kid, too young to be a man, he's trying his best to take care of his mom (Felicity Jones), who is dying of cancer. She doesn't want Conor to lose hope—the next treatment will work!—but he's too sensitive and smart. He knows what's up.
Conor's fears manifest nightly in a terrifying recurring dream, in which his mom is swallowed by the earth in the cemetery grounds outside his bedroom window. This is the film's central image, and it's devastating. Then, one night, the boundary between dreaming and waking is breached. A forty-foot-tall tree monster pulls itself from the graveyard, peers into Conor's room, and begins spinning the first of three fables.
These stories-within-the-story populate the rest of the film with a hallucinatory pageant of visual imagination. Director J.A. Bayona seamlessly blends music, animation, and digital effects to conjure a powerful dream-state sensation. Between the tales, and after, the story returns to Conor's waking world, where he must deal with a school bully, his cold grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and his mother's final days.
The monster's stories are clearly intended to be instructive parables for Conor's benefit, but something's wrong. They're not helping. They don't make sense. They certainly don't end properly. And that, of course, is the point. "Sometimes love isn't enough," Conor is told. "Most of us just get messily ever after."
It's a dark, compelling twist on the Disneyfied magical realism we usually get at the movies. So it's a shame that Bayona doesn't trust the material to land on its own. Too many sequences sag with redundant exposition and overwrought emotional cues, and the final scenes are nakedly manipulative. A Monster Calls earns its tears for the most part, but parents may find themselves getting itchy in the end.