There are actually two stories in Room, director Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel about a young woman who’s help captive for seven years in a small shed along with her 5 year-old son, Jack. He’s never stepped a foot outside, never even seen a tree, and she’s taught him from birth that the entire world ends with the four walls that surround him. But when they are miraculously rescued and their world becomes a much bigger place, he has to recalibrate both his reality and the boundaries of his imagination. She has to come to grips with the personal trauma she did her best to ignore while just trying to survive.
Their arcs dove-tail, and Brie Larson (Short Term 12) and 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay left audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival drying their eyes as the theater lights came up on Sunday night. The 25-year-old actress, who moviegoers might know best as Amy Schumer’s more responsible sister in Trainwreck, delivers a heartwrenching performance that doesn’t have an ounce of capital-A Acting to it. She spent nine months researching the psychology of the role, meeting with trauma counselors, experimenting with silent retreats, and spending weeks at a time isolated in her apartment. Ma, as Jack calls her, is suffering physically, emotionally, and spiritually, but things become even more difficult once they escape. Yet Larson brings to life a crucial quality from Donoghue’s pages that can only be attributed to her own personal essence. “She’s just luminous,” says Abrahamson. “If it were a more angular actress, she may not have delivered that grounded quality.”
Abrahamson wanted Larson after seeing Short Term 12, but finding his Jack was a do-or-die creative decision. Jack is the film’s narrator and arguably the main character. “If we hadn’t found [Jacob], we didn’t have a movie,” says Abrahamson. Casting agents looked all over North America before discovered the Vancouver native, who’d appeared in Smurfs 2. Abrahamson says four young actors were in the mix but that his mind was made up the moment he met with Tremblay.
Tremblay was an adorable presence at the post-screening Q&A, getting laughs from the audience when he referred to Larson and Joan Allen, who plays his grandmother, as his “co-workers.” Larson, who spent her teen years babysitting her younger cousins, quickly bonded with Tremblay during pre-production in order to build the mother-son on-screen relationship that is the crux of the film. “We would just go in Room every day, just hang out,” Larson said at the panel. “Sometimes Lenny would be there, sometimes he would close the door and just let us be in there. We were able to create a really fun space. We had a really awesome time together. He’s my very good friend, and I enjoy spending time with him.”
The two could be seeing more of each other, perhaps even well past the film’s Oct. 16 theatrical release date. The film drew raves at Telluride, and both actors will likely receive some consideration for awards — as might Donoghue, who penned the screenplay. If nominated, Tremblay could become the youngest Best Actor nominee in 85 years.