After publishing this review I will have posted a review on every single best picture nominee of 2016. I have previously stated that I think this film was the third most deserving of the Oscar (post available here) and I really do stand by that. This low budget movie features great acting by its two protagonists, clever direction, and a very interesting and captivating screenplay. But like most low-budget movies that make it big, there are quite a handful of flaws here and there that take away from an otherwise great film. Most dominant is the awkward transition of acts as well as the poorly paced second and third acts as well as some wooden performances by the actors in cameo roles.
But the most surprising actor was Jacob Tremblay, who is actually the protagonist of the movie, and who is one of the most talented young actors out there. His performance is interesting and dramatic and really adds to the movie rather than take away (like most young actors do). His onscreen work with Brie Larson however is the best thing this movie has to offer. Their peculiar, yet thoroughly grounded and gritty dynamic and chemistry works perfectly and truly helps underline the horrible and unthinkable situation they live in. That said, Brie Larson is also fantastic in this movie and especially when we reach the end of the third act do we really start to see her character coming through. Her performance is nuanced and is really built around her surroundings to a point where the viewer understands that this is a character dominated by others rather than herself. And she is very good at working with Tremblay; all too often do you see a leading actor or actress almost dismiss their child actor co-star but that is absolutely not the case in this film.
The film also features a handful of supporting actors who are not as vital to the story and some of which drag it down rather than anything else. Most notable in the dragging down town is Wendy Crewson who plays a talk show host who has a nice and thorough cameo. Crewson’s character asks Larson some hard questions which leads Larson to re-evaluate her decisions and that’s all fine and dandy. But Crewson gives the most awkward and flimsy performance imaginable and really ends up downplaying what would otherwise have been a major moment for Larson, but this is also in part due to the (otherwise great) screenplay’s flimsy second act. However on the other side of the spectrum, Sean Bridgers gives a frighteningly realistic portrayal of Larson and Tremblay’s captor and while still not stealing the show, he raises the stakes significantly. William H. Macy also features in the film as Larson’s father and gives a brilliantly nuanced and interesting performance that I shouldn’t talk too much about as to not spoil the plot. Then we also have a great cameo by Matt Gordon. And otherwise the rest of the supporting cast seems remarkably wooden despite their brief screentime (Joan Allen and Cas Anvar are especially dull to watch.)
The first act of this film takes place in one single room and that already seems challenging enough to work with for a director. But then add on the fact that it’s a small room, that there are up to three people in it, and that one of them is an 11-year old. Those are challenges that most directors would shy away from, but Lenny Abrahamson did not, and instead created one of the most claustrophobic and well directed one-room first acts that makes Cloverfield Lane seem like a walk in the park. He was obviously assisted by a great cinematographer, Danny Cohen, who chose to embrace the claustrophobia rather than shy away. But the movie quickly loses a little of its charm when it moves beyond that room and into the open. The second and third acts are by no standard weak, but they are simply not as edgy as the first act. But one thing that is done very well in the second act especially is the slight sense of overwhelmingness which makes the viewer sympathize with Tremblay’s character.
And then there’s the screenplay. The screenplay is fantastic for the most part, but runs into a couple of awkward or unnatural moments. But the only reason some of these moments are so noticeable is because the rest of the movie’s screenplay is so strong that it’s easier to point out when it lags. The screenplay, written by Emma Donoghue (and based on her book), really does understand its two protagonists to a point where it’s surprisingly easy to forget that you’re watching a movie. The story is also crafted in a very interesting manner with a focus on the aftermath of the room, rather than the escape from the room and that is probably the most charming aspect of this film. Oh yeah, I should also mention that the score, by Stephen Rennicks, is pretty good too, especially in the thrilling moments when it helps add a sense of thrill and uncomfort.
This movie is a must-watch even if it isn’t perfect. It is a showcase of just how much is possible, even with a limited budget and a looming challenge such as this film’s first act. The film however thrives on its director’s cleverness, good screenplay, and two wonderful protagonists who string together this dramatic and unique story of love, hope, and family.
Best Aspect- Lenny Abrahamson
Worst Aspect- Wendy Crewson