Tough gig being a child actor, I’m not talking about the multiple traps you can fall into because you were in the public eye young (prisondrug abuse, mad parents), no, there’s the much more obvious pitfall of just not being very good. I mean it’s usually forgiveable not very good – Daniel Radcliffe channeling Shatner in HP One – “I. Can’t. Be a….. wizard” – but sometimes it’s just like ‘throw that child out the WINDOW’ annoying. So, it was with some trepidation I approached my weekend viewings of Room on Friday and Beasts of No Nation on Sunday, as both rely on the central child actor to carry the film.

Both films, and both boys, were phenomenal, not a hint of Shatner… just a joy to watch, if the word joy can be assigned to these films.

Room will have a tough time getting people into the cinema. Director Lenny Abrahamson said he made a deliberate choice in the trailer and marketing to reveal the ending, because despite what you might assume, Room is not about kidnap, imprisonment, a damaged child or horror-filled, it’s about a relationship between a mother and a son, it’s a love story. However, for those who have read the book, Room,  almost exclusively spends time with just two characters, Jack and Ma, and without the right casting and more importantly the correct pairing, there would be no film.But they nailed it, Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson are utterly believable in their roles. Abrahamson has spoken about the importance of Larson and Tremblay’s off-screen relationship, he could not have cast an actress who would ‘return to her trailer’, he needed someone to engage all day with the child actor, whether the cameras were on or not. Larson is quietly terrific and thoroughly deserves that Oscar nod, and it is because of her and of Abrahamson that Tremblay is so perfect.

Jack feels so true he will feel familiar both to those with small children in their lives and, certainly for me, as a reminder of your own childhood, the pushing of boundaries, the questions, the swings of emotion. Abrahamson’s work with Tremblay, repeating takes, repeating lines, letting the camera roll on as they stopped and talked through scenes, produces not only a natural performance but makes Jack deeply likable. In one scene where Jack shouts at Ma, Tremblay really struggled, so Abrahamson got the whole crew up and shouting until he joined in. Of course Room is not a blockbuster, there are not a lot of effects or a large crew to wrangle so Abrahamson had the space to do this style of directing, but the outcome is spectacular. He manages to film the the room of the title so it really does go “every direction, all the way to the end”. There is of course a pervading sense of horror, despite the undeniably uplifting scenes where Jack introduces us to his world, “Egg snake’s our longest friend, and fanciest”, we as adults know something is very wrong. Abrahamson allows this horror to creep in around us – we know the real reason there aren’t any birthday candles, Ma has a ‘gone’ day where she doesn’t get out of bed, Old Nick is a another word for devil – we can feel it and we know, but somehow it stays on the edges because Jack is ok. Because Ma has done a really good job at giving him a childhood. There are of course heart-in-mouth moments and I am sure if you are a Mummy this is a much tougher watch, but it is predominately an overwhelmingly positive film, about the power of imagination and the joy of childhood. Of course here is the place to give massive props to Emma Donoghue as well, who wrote the book but also the screenplay, apparently she wrote it almost immediately because she was afraid they wouldn’t let her if they book did well. It’s wonderful stuff.

There is a scene in Room which echoed through my head when watching Beasts of No Nation, it includes the following exchange:

JACK: I want a different story.

MA: No, this is the story that you get.

Ultimately, in Room you don’t want a different story, because in a different story Jack would not be there and Ma would not be Ma. However, I did want a different story for Agu, the central character of Beasts of No Nation, played by Abraham Attah, very badly.

Like Room, Beasts of No Nation, is all told from Agu’s perspective. Both films employ a voiceover, but where Jack’s commentary retains a 5 year old’s logic and innocence “There’s less time because the time has to be spread extra thin over all the places, like butter”, Agu’s becomes increasingly aged beyond his years and frighteningly bleak, “Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga, like Abrahamson, begins with Agu existing in a world that has horror on the edges, a world at war, with soldiers, borders, friends leaving in the night, anxious parents, but Agu is fine, he has parents that love him. Jack has an imaginary dog, Agu has imagination TV (joyous). Agu is older so will try to understand what is happening, but it’s much more fun to pull faces by torchlight, fart at the dinner table, basically be a child. You enjoy spending time in Agu’s world so much that when the horror spills over, it feels more shocking. In Room, your deepest fears of what could happen never materialise, in Beasts of No Nation, it gets much worse than you can imagine.

Beasts of No Nation is not an easy watch, but equally is not relentlessly bleak, the work of Fukunaga and Attah to bring joy and truth in the first 30 mins pays off and the supporting cast are equally excellent. In contrast to the de-saturated, cold, Fincher-esque colours of Room, the colour palate here is lush, bright, and jumps off the screen so you can feel the heat, the smells and tastes of this world. There has been much controversy around the overlooked Oscar nomination for Idris Elba and I see why, he is mesmerising as the Commandant – finding the balance between the human and the monster, showing moments of being almost (almost) sympathetic and likeable, which lends truth to the performance of a character than could easily have been done as a by the numbers ‘evil African rebel’.

A brief aside for the supporting cast of Room, loved Joan Allen and Tom McCamus – just being totally believable and populating the world they are in beautifully. I couldn’t remember if William H Macy’s character was lifted from the book, but in the film he feels surplus to requirements and his plotline feels a bit crow-barred in.

So to wrap it up – I find I am a bit rambly this time – I wish Jacob Tremblay and Abraham Attah the very best, they have excelled in their debut film roles, top work. Room will leave you feeling uplifted, Beasts of No Nation will leave you feeling helpless and empty, but both films are urgent and important. They both have the same message for me, what children are told to make sense of their experiences, they will believe. The lies Ma tells Jack to allow him to make sense of his world are done from kindness and a desire to protect, the gamble pays off, Jack ends happy, healthy and curious. The lies the Commandant tells Agu to justify his new existence as a child soldier leaves him dead-eyed, drug addicted and damaged, though we hope not beyond repair.

Children will listen.

  • Room is still in all the cinemas and Beasts of No Nation is available on Netflix. 
  • If you watch Beasts of No Nation and want to do something, you may consider joining me in supporting the work of War Child – their work is incredible and they are there long after a war has ended, I have supported them for a few years now.