A Monster Calls will make you cry. I suppose I ought to qualify that in some way - it will make some of you cry based on certain life experiences you might have had, etc. etc. - but that barely seems correct. A Monster Calls will make you cry the same that that way that sniffing pepper will make you sneeze. Not everybody will have the response, because not everybody is wired the same way, but it's an instinctive response that takes place more on a physiological level than anything else.

That's both the strength of A Monster Calls and, frankly, it's biggest problem. This is a greedy tearjerker, greedy and shameless - and effective, to be perfectly fair. The thing is at least in some part aimed at children who need help emotionally coping with the loss of a parent, and even as it moves beyond that niche, it remains dedicated to the idea of children's stories fairy tales as a powerful agent for emotional growth. A certain (rather high) degree of blunt-force anti-subtlety is not merely baked into the scenario, it is, in fact, the very point of the thing. The story is about an English boy right on the cusp of adolescence, Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall), who is unhappy of all of the usual reasons, including being an easy target for bullies and having not a scrap of a relationship with his father, remarried and living in Los Angeles, and has another even worse reason for being so unhappy that he's very nearly not functioning: his mother (Felicity Jones), who's also his only real friend from what we can tell, has cancer. It's never precisely named as such, and the degree to which Conor actually knows what's going on remains unclear, a combination of the adults in his life not going out of their way to be honest with him, and his own insistence on believing the most optimistic possible version of every new development. But let's just say, with all due sensitivity to spoilers, that it's not the kind of cancer that you anticipate will be cured through movie magic and the power of love in the final reel.

Anyway, that's the film, pretty much: Conor has an awareness that his mother is dying but will not permit that knowledge to penetrate his consciousness, and as a result takes out his intense rage on everyone around him. Most especially his prim grandmother (Sigourney Weaver, strangely laboring under a British accent that she's successfully trotted out in the past), with whom he's only ever had a fairly officious relationship, though when his dad (Toby Kebbell) comes by for a visit, it's pretty clear that Conor has limited patience for him, as well. There is but one outlet for his misery, and one coping mechanism: Conor, prone to imaginative and artistic fancies, dreams one night that the huge yew tree on a hill outside his bedroom window comes to live as a giant tree-monster (voiced and mo-capped by an especially robust and gravelly Liam Neeson - Neeson also cameos, in photographs, as Conor's deceased grandfather, and this is significant, though never commented-upon). Not a friendly monster, either; he is short-tempered and obviously capable of violence, though he only means to tell Conor stories: three of them, which will all in some fashion elucidated Conor's current suffering, and at the end of it all, Conor must tell his own story, about the recurring nightmare he's been having.

A Monster Calls is thus about the power of stories to give some focus and sense to life, but with a caustic twist: the stories the monster tells are deeply unsatisfying and unresolved, and their lessons are in no way clear in the manner of traditional fairy tales. The whole thing is very much part of the 21st Century vogue for brittle, postmodernist children's fantasies in the post-Neil Gaiman model, but it's a solid enough iteration of this emerging cliché of anti-clichéd bedtime stories. A few things help prop it up, and certainly not least among them is MacDougall, a terrific young actor who plays Conor as all sharp edges, genuinely weird and off-putting in ways that are thoroughly unexpected, and make his alienation feel more real and believable. The key to the character is that Conor actively despises himself, for reasons he spends the whole movie unable to articulate, and MacDougall evokes something of that techy harshness in a performance remarkably unwilling to ask for our love and sympathy.

The other thing that works, and works powerful well, is that it is an exceedingly beautiful fantasy. J.A. Bayona made his name directing The Orphanage almost a decade ago, and it would have been enough if A Monster Calls had found its way into the same lavish, spooky atmosphere of that film, but it goes far beyond that. It does this most profoundly in the monster's first two stories, which are animated in an intoxicating hybrid style, combining the color and diffuse shapes of watercolor painting with the full bodies and three-dimensional spaces of computer animation; I think it would not be an unsupportable exaggeration to call these two sequences the most beautiful and stylistically effective animation to have shown up in any 2016 movie, and if not for Kubo and the Two Strings, I wouldn't hedge my bets even slightly. Frankly, the animated sequences are worth the price of admission on their own, and the fact that they're so intimately tied in with the rest of the film - they are the mental depiction of how Conor imagines the stories as extensions of his art - just makes them that much better. Even the "real" sequences are touched with a sense of expressionistic gloom and grandeur: the cemetery where the yew tree grows feels a bit too Gothic and grey to possibly be real, and there's plenty of quotidian interior spaces that Bayona and cinematographer Óscar Faura and production designer Eugenio Caballero (who also designed Pan's Labyrinth, so we know he's got the goods to do a solid dark fairy tale) invest with a sense of old-fashioned dustiness and gravity that go rather far away from anything like realism.

The fairy tale style is most of what A Monster Calls has to recommend it: the less fantastic it gets, the more we have to deal with Jones, Weaver, and Kebbell not being particularly interesting in their roles (Jones does the most with the least, though how much is her and how much is the go-for-broke chemo patient make-up she's swathed in by the end is hard to say). And I will honestly say that I never quite trust the movie: there's a fine line between a movie that is sad because it uses art to make us sad, and a movie that shows a boy watching his mother die horribly and cheating its way past artistry, and I haven't quite decided where A Monster Calls falls. But I'll say that it's handsome as hell, and it's definitely an intense emotional experience, however it gets there. You have to be in the mood to watch it - and who the hell is in "the mood" to watch this kind of movie - but as merciless depictions of powerfully bruised feelings go, it doesn't let up.