Grief is universal. Everyone has to confront it at some time or another; it all comes down to how we handle it when it comes for us. Grief is never easy to endure, but it can be less challenging to overcome for those with a lifetime of experiences to draw on, the wisdom that comes with a wealth of emotional intelligence. It is often tragic, then, when grief strikes the young, those who have no coping mechanism to internalize the trauma, sending them spinning into an abyss of confusion, sorrow and blinding pain. Such is the fate of Conor (Louis MacDougall), the twelve year old protagonist of A Monster Calls from director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) and writer Patrick Ness (from his own novel). His mother (Felicity Jones) is stricken with cancer, her treatments sapping her of her energy and forcing Conor’s grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) to have an increased presence in his life, much to his chagrin. Lost, alone and bullied relentlessly at school, Conor is at his lowest when the Yew Tree in the graveyard behind his house bursts to life, unfolding into a five story high monster of branches and twigs (Liam Neeson provides the voice). The monster always appears at 12:07, telling Conor three stories in exchange for one of his own.
These stories, animated in an expressive watercolor style, provide the metaphorical weight of A Monster Calls. The monster’s stories set up clear, expected children’s story morals only to subvert them, pointing to the belief that the real world is rarely as simple as these fairy tales purport. The monster is gruff, short tempered and abrupt, but it comes from a place of tough love. He aims to use the fables to prepare this young boy for the inevitable loss of his mother, to show him that the good ones don’t always win in the real world, and more often than not, pure good hardly exists to be praised in the first place. It’s not quite a moral relativist stance, but it’s not far off either. The filmmaking evokes David Yates in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, an abrupt and endearing change in style and tone that captures the imagination. The Harry Potter ‘Three Brothers’ sequence was a highlight not only because of its clear aesthetic beauty, but for how that contrasted with the relative blandness of the film that surrounded it. It almost made the rest of the film actively worse next to it. A Monster Calls, it turns out, suffers from a similar affliction.
There’s an undeniable awkwardness to the dialogue and its delivery throughout A Monster Calls. Scenes feel like they end a few words too late here, a sentence too early there, a practice that constantly and consistently makes the pacing of the film seem off kilter. It often seems to be a struggle for the actors to corral the odd speech patterns, unable to overcome the stilted nature of the words on the page. Some sequences feel too direct, jumping straight to the point without filling in any of the connective tissue to make it flow from what came before and what’s coming after (the monster has the biggest problem with this, just launching into stories immediately without enough of a build to them). It certainly seems like a case of a novelist making the leap into the world of screenplays and stumbling along the way. Prose dialogue and film dialogue do not always line up as well as one might think, and Patrick Ness does genuinely do a good job with character development, but the dialogue is a consistent letdown. Novelists have succeeded in adapting their own work into screenplays in the past (David Benioff’s first screenplay adapted his own 25th Hour novel, Emma Donoghue’s Room screenplay was a triumph, and there are countless more), but this really feels like a case where the film could have benefited greatly from a seasoned screenwriter to give the dialogue a punch up at the very least.
It’s a shame too, because the one thing both Ness and Bayona really get completely right is the emotional content of A Monster Calls. Jones and MacDougall expertly form a real bond, and the denial and confusion evident in Conor as he comes to grips with the possibility of his mother’s death while clinging to any possibility for her salvation is wrenching, as is Weaver’s balancing act between disciplinarian and caregiver as she steps in as his guardian. The appearance of Conor’s estranged father (Toby Kebbel) reinforces the very real ambivalence that can come from strained familial relation and custody concerns in the face of tragedy (a concept handled far better by the superior Manchester By the Sea). As a result, even as the dialogue continues to keep you at arm’s length, the underlying emotion of the film remains startlingly effective. Only the most hardened cynic can make it through the third act without at least fighting back tears, and that’s the case even if the rest of the film often disappointed.
As such, A Monster Calls is a rather frustrating experience to behold. Its visual fidelity and trenchant emotional content does wonders to draw you in, but its dialogue, certain aspects of its plotting and thoroughly uneven pacing do just as much work to push you away. Those who have read the book will have to comment on its efficacy as an adaptation, but as its own standalone film, it’s rather maddening. J.A. Bayona is a talented filmmaker and accomplished visual artist, but A Monster Calls marks a second straight effort that can’t quite live up to his alluring debut, The Orphanage. There’s quite a bit to like here, and quite a bit to dislike as well. Perhaps a stronger screenplay with more naturalistic and confident dialogue would have allowed the thematic elements of A Monster Calls, its strong suit by some distance, to fight its was further to the fore. Unfortunately, it requires a bit too much digging to succeed.