If Ann Landers had it right, and hanging on to resentment amounts to letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head, then “Your Monster” is what happens when you kick open the door and let those feelings run amok. Drawing from personal experience, writer-director Caroline Lindy delivers a clumsy metaphor of a movie, in which a promising young actor named Laura Franco (“In the Heights” star Melissa Barrera) has her Broadway dreams derailed by a cancer diagnosis, only to discover a ferocious inner strength, courtesy of the beastly creature she finds hanging around her childhood home.
In what amounts to a heavy-handed empowerment tale, the monster in question (Tommy Dewey, made up to suggest a cross between a goat-bearded New York hipster and the leonine lothario Ron Perlman played in CBS’ late-’80s series “Beauty and the Beast”) is at first a surly roommate, later a potential love interest and ultimately a manifestation of Laura’s long-suppressed sense of rage. The symbolism isn’t exactly subtle as Laura learns to break free of her polite good-girl upbringing and embrace those roiling emotions.
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Set in the histrionic world of musical theater, “Your Monster” is no conventional horror offering, any more than conceptually similar “Colossal” and “A Monster Calls” were before it. Things eventually get bloody, but only just enough to support Sundance’s decision to book Lindy’s genre-bending backstage dramedy as a midnight movie. At various points, Lindy’s script overtly identifies the kind of cinematic impact she’s aiming to achieve, as when Laura watches Stanley Donen’s “Royal Wedding,” tearing up as she always does at the end of such movies. And yet, Lindy’s project doesn’t register as a new-classic romance so much as a score-settling grudge match.
Like her heartbroken protagonist, Lindy was dumped by an insensitive boyfriend just as she was being treated for a suspicious tumor. It takes a special kind of jerk to abandon someone in such a situation, and yet, Barrera’s pouty and privileged take on the character gives audiences reason to think her deadbeat ex, Jacob (Edmund Donovan), had the right idea. We can all agree how lousy Laura’s breakup must have felt, but it’s going to take more than tragedy to make us care about this entitled drama queen.
A flashback shows the moment when Jacob promised Laura the lead role in the musical she helped him develop, “The House of Good Women.” But what evidence does Lindy give that her leading lady belongs on Broadway? If Barrera’s cringe-worthy performance is meant to be any indication of Laura’s talent, the character doesn’t belong anywhere near a professional stage.
Lindy has the lazy tendency of resorting to hammy montages (featuring more sweater changes than a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” marathon) in places where a specific, well-written scene would have revealed far more about the character. And so we get Laura bingeing on pastries and bawling her eyes out when she comes home from the hospital, or cutesy clips of her and the monster fighting over the thermostat during the short time they agree to cohabitate. Lindy treats “Your Monster” like a high-concept sitcom premise, but fails to deliver the laughs such an approach requires.
Against her better judgment — but at the monster’s encouragement — Laura psyches herself into attending the tryouts for Jacob’s musical. Her audition is a disaster, which makes sense, considering that her ex sits there looking pathetic, a popular star (Meghann Fahy) is positioned to steal her part, and one of the decision-makers distractedly chooses this moment to eat his lunch. Barrera can sing, but she can’t juggle, which is a problem in a role that requires a more versatile performer.
Still, whether out of sympathy or obligation, Jacob offers to make Laura the understudy, which introduces the near certainty that the star will break a leg or something, therefore paving the way for Laura to shine. Unique as the premise may sound, “Your Monster” proves frustratingly obvious as its furious heroine works up the nerve to unleash her id (which is a lot less satisfying when presented as a grouchy companion than if she had a full transformation, à la “Cat People” or “Ginger Snaps”).
At one point, Laura’s invited to a masquerade party with Jacob and the cast, using the Halloween holiday as the perfect opportunity to drag her monster out of the house — under the pretext that he’s in costume. I suspect that young audiences may find Dewey’s adorable-ogre shtick more amusing than I did, as the hirsute creature (who’s presumably been pent up in Laura’s house/subconscious till now) surprises with his millennial lingo and awareness of neighborhood hot spots.
The stock joke with imaginary-friend movies is that these characters are disconnected and out of touch with the modern world, whereas the monster under Laura’s bed expresses himself like a teenage girl — even more than best (and only) friend Mazie (Kayla Foster), who brings an irreverent Kate Berlant-like energy to the only other character who seems to care about Laura. Mopey to a fault, with a missed opportunity for an ending, “Your Monster” amounts to an intermittently amusing, grubby-looking pity party. Laura can cry if she wants to, but you won’t.
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