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‘A Monster Calls’ may be about a kid, but it’s for adults

Conor (Lewis MacDougall), left, faces down a monster, right. (Paramount Pictures)

The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Stephanie Merry’s review of “A Monster Calls,” click here.

For a story built around a giant tree creature, “A Monster Calls” is — sometimes punishingly — grounded in truth. The ads and the trailer, however, are not.

The marketing behind the PG-13 film suggests it’s a story of a boy (Lewis MacDougall) and his arboreal buddy (voiced by Liam Neeson). The boy has problems — you can see in the ads that his mom (Felicity Jones) is ill, and it’s suggested he’s being bullied. Still, the soaring music and inspirational clips (“Of course you are afraid. But you will make it through,” intones his new pal) suggest that, in the end, the movie is appropriate for youngish kids. In fact, I considered bringing my 8-year-old son to the press screening, but he elected to go see “Rogue One” with his dad. Did I luck out, because “Rogue One,” with its violence, danger and mass extermination, is infinitely more appropriate for a kid his age.

“A Monster Calls” is one of those rare films about childhood that wasn’t made for children. The boy, Conor, is 12 (but MacDougall is a small, slight kid; until I looked up the plot synopsis, I assumed the character was closer to 10). His mom is not just a little sick, but terminally ill, presumably with cancer — and kudos to director J.A. Bayona for depicting cancer as the wretched, nasty disease it is. At one (hopefully CGI-enhanced) point, Conor spies his mom’s bare back, and it is nothing but a mass of ribs, spine and shoulder blades. The bullies he faces are violent and sadistic, and their actions sometimes have unnervingly sexual undertones. The monster, when he arrives, tells stories that would be fairy tales, except sometimes darkness prevails, children die and the bad guys win. “Pete’s Dragon” this isn’t.

I can only guess why the marketing team charged with selling “A Monster Calls” did what they did (other than to sell more tickets). My guess is it’s, at least in part, our fault. Too often, we adults assume that we can’t identify with a child as a central character, just as we too often think we can’t learn anything from kids other than unending tidbits about Pokémon and Minecraft.

In “A Monster Calls,” of course we empathize with Conor; his situation and MacDougall’s performance make not doing so unthinkable. As Conor faces situations that only adults should face and learns things only adults should learn, he becomes someone not to be pitied, but to be admired and emulated. And “hey, come see this kid suffer and, in doing so, better understand how to deal with the sometimes searingly painful unfairness of life” does not fit really well on a movie poster. Better to highlight the Groot-like tree friend.

There are kids who live in worlds like Conor’s; there are children who live in worlds that are even worse. But for most kids, the ones who don’t consider an array of prescription bottles a normal part of bedside decor, Conor’s world is too cruel to live in, even for two hours. “A Monster Calls” is a profound work of art. It’s a shame no one thought that convincing adults of that was enough to sell tickets.

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