The movie is adapted from an award-winning children’s novel and centers on a 12-year-old whose life seems choked in grief. Rated 3 stars out of 4.

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J.A. Bayona’s wistful fantasy “A Monster Calls,” adapted by Patrick Ness from his award-winning children’s novel, centers on 12-year-old Conor O’Malley, “a boy too old to be a kid, too young to be a man,” the voice-over tells us. Played by Lewis MacDougall, who has the fascinating quality of looking like both boy and man simultaneously (it seems to depend on how the light plays on his face), Conor is enduring a life that seems choked in grief.

His beloved mother (Felicity Jones) is dying; his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he must stay, is cold and distant; his father (Toby Kebbell) lives far away; and he finds no respite at school, where he’s mercilessly bullied by classmates. Instead, he takes refuge in drawing, and in the monster — a creature who bursts from the ancient yew tree outside his window, voiced by Liam Neeson — who visits him late at night, offering stories.

Movie Review ★★★  

‘A Monster Calls,’ with Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, and the voice of Liam Neeson. Directed by J.A. Bayona, from a screenplay by Patrick Ness, based on the novel by Ness. 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic content and some scary images. Several theaters.

You watch “A Monster Calls” wondering a bit about who its audience might be; though its tone of gentle sadness seems aimed at children (as was the book), it’s perhaps too frightening for young ones. But older audiences braced for tragedy may be drawn to its imaginative visuals — the stories told by the monster are rendered in delicate, painterly animation — and to the achingly vulnerable, growing-up-too-fast boy at its center.

This is Bayona’s third movie (after “Orphanage” and “The Impossible”) to explore the bond between mother and son, and while I found myself wishing that Jones’ character had more nuance, perhaps it’s right that we see her as Conor does: an uncomplicated, suffering angel. Raging against the world, Conor begins to accept what he cannot change, and to take a few tentative steps toward growing up.

“I did not come to heal her,” says the monster, whose identity becomes clearer as the film progresses. “I came to heal you.”