After winning hearts as Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Felicity Jones is now breaking them in A Monster Calls. The actress gives a dazzling, deeply-felt performance as a cancer-stricken mother unable to help her 12-year-old son Conor (an outstanding Lewis MacDougall) adjust to losing her. And so a tree must do it, an ancient yew (voiced with great force and feeling by Liam Neeson) that comes stomping to life in the church yard outside Conor’s bedroom window at precisely 12:07pm each night. It’s a simple (not simplistic) fable, gracefully adapted by Patrick Ness from his own novel, but laced with troubling psychological complexity manifested in the form of this outwardly monstrous tree.
In bringing the novel to the screen, director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible) deftly combines sensitive performances with expert animation and animatronics. Yet the special effects never overwhelm the intimacy of the personal story being told. Conor is bullied at school, hounded by nightmares, treated sternly by his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and scarcely comforted by his father (Toby Kebbell), who’s remarried and relocated to America. It’s the tree that wraps its sharp branches around the boy, offering him three stories in exchange for one of his own. These animated, watercolored interludes, resembling the sketches Conor scrawls in his notebook, represent the dark, incomprehensible fears of a lost child.
In lesser hands, A Monster Calls could be sapped by emotional excess. But Bayona keeps reality and fantasy in delicate balance. The last scene between mother and son, handled beautifully by Jones and MacDougall, could melt the hardest heart. But the film never cheats the cruelty lurking in the world, ready like the monster to yank itself out of the ground and threaten, “I’m coming to get you.” Evocative, mysterious and shot through with bruising humor and heartbreak, A Monster Calls gets you where you live and where there’s no place to hide. There’s magic in it.