When it comes to teen or young adult films, reception is always fickle. For every Adventures in Babysitting (1987) or E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), there’s a The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking (1988) or Mac and Me (1988). Some are instant critical darlings, while others develop into cult classics. There’s no denying, however, that it’s the audience – the children – that makes them what they are. It’s the children that remember the silly stupidity of Pippi and the terrible heartbreak of The Neverending Story (1984). So while not every film grows to become a box office leader, the impression they make may lead to untold longevity. Such may be the case with writer/director Paulina Lagudi’s Mail Order Monster, a story about grief, bullying, and the need for healing, told through the lens of a child’s imaginative eye.
It’s been three years since the car accident that took her mother’s life and Sam Pepper (Madison Horcher) feels the empty space where her mother used to be every day. Making matters worse, her best friend PJ (Emma Rayne Lyle) has turned into her daily tormentor and her father Roy (Josh Hopkins) is preparing to propose to his girlfriend Sydney (Charisma Carpenter). Feeling lost and alone, Sam decides to respond to an ad in the back of one of her comic books that offers the reader their very own Mail Order Monster, a robotic companion and protector (portrayed by Jeremy Aubrey). The dissonance between what Sam expects and what she gets is far greater than Sam’s prepared for, offering a surprising opportunity to heal a wound believed to be unamendable.
There are several elements at play which make Mail Order Monster’s simple premise of loss leading to dissolution until a catalyst requires immediate resolution befitting a children’s film an enjoyable experience. In her first feature film, Lagudi demonstrates great competency in capturing moments. Whether it’s the playfulness of Sam trying to sneak the robot – dubbed M.O.M. – into her school or the illustrating the growing distance between Sam and her father as Roy broaches the subject of remarrying, Lagudi ensures that it’s the characters that drive the scenes rather than manufacturing moments. This, of course, would be meaningless without strong performances from the cast, making each of the characters feel real and their needs realistic. Hopkins tends to play Roy as loving and doting, yet the things Roy misses seem to be a by-product of trying to mend his own heart. Conversely, Horcher plays Sam as unwilling to see anyone else’s POV, leading to several emotional outbursts that seem unreasonable outside of the moment, yet perfectly justified and authentic within it. Much of Monster’s success derives from the tight script co-written by Lagudi and Marc Prey (The Sex Trip).
From a stylistic approach, the film refuses to talk down to its audience by pretending to be hip or sleek, choosing a more instinctive approach to character language and relationships. For example, the character design of M.O.M. seems unrefined at first, until the audience realizes the purposeful intent of it. Nothing fancy will be purchased by a child off a comic book ad for $20 that isn’t utter wish fulfillment, which M.O.M. essential is for Sam. It’s a surrogate friend, confidant, and protector: all the things Sam feels she lacks. Purchasing it is driven by anger and despair, but what it offers is catharsis. Speaking of Sam, it’s her POV that truly guides the feel of Monster. Sam is introduced as possessing a natural talent for science and engineering, so the film taps into this by opening not with a traditional live-action sequence, but with a stylized version mimicking a comic book panel. This not only introduces Sam, PJ, and Wendy, as well as the car accident that instigates the emotional core of Monster, it reduces the violent nature of the incident. This use of comic paneling appears several times throughout Monster, typically as a flashback, and is a clever way to continue the concept of sharing the emotion without demonstrating brutality. Combined with the bright, upbeat colors that jump off each frame as designed by Cooper Ulrich (Holly’s Girl), as well as light, fantastical music provided by Robert Mai (faith, Hope & Love), the whole of Monster is a constant battle between the darkness within and the light trying to break through.
Taken in the spirit Mail Order Monster deserves, it’s a fine family experience. There’s certainly some quibbling to be had over it’s too easily-wrapped conclusion or the way in which it neither dips too deeply into the trauma nor raises too high into the affirmative, but leave that to the adults. Mail Order Monster is for children to consume and either appreciate or reject. Why? Because it’s a film utilizing a child’s imagination in an attempt to communicate Sam’s painful healing journey. Honest in its depiction of the complicated nature of moving forward with grief, much like those who followed Atreyu’s heroic journey still carry the loss of Artax, Mail Order Monster offers its young audience both the words and visuals that they might need to reflect and recognize their own pain, or that of someone they care for, and find a way to ask for help. Mail Order Monster provides an unexpected reminder that family is not just the group we’re born into, but the one we make for ourselves and it’s our collective job to look out for each other in bright days and dark, like a figurative M.O.M. to watch over us all.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.