A Toronto Film Festival audience-award prize makes the intimate drama an unlikely, but much-needed, contender.
Room was met with a lengthy standing ovation when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, so everyone probably should have predicted it as the eventual winner of Toronto’s audience award. But even as pundits like me were scrambling around looking for awards hopefuls, we kept managing to overlook Room; it would be competitive for its performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, sure, but it somehow didn’t feel . . . Oscar-y.
The audience award changes that—the winner of that prize in Toronto has gone on to be a best-picture Oscar nominee six of the last seven years. But Room is still a major outlier in the awards conversation; as a two-hander between a 25-year-old woman and an 8-year-old boy (with some excellent supporting work from Joan Allen), it has no major role for an adult male actor. If it becomes a best-picture nominee, it will be only the second film in the last decade to fit that very specific—but very important—statistic.
Boy movies win Oscars. That’s no surprise in the year of reigning best-picture champion Birdman, which edged out a movie called Boyhood, which had strong competition from three separate biopics about men. And when movies primarily about women make their way into the best-picture competition, they’re almost always ensembles—The Help, The Hours, Secrets & Lies, even Chicago. To find a movie primarily about one woman that was nominated for best picture you have to go all the way back to 2000 and Erin Brockovich, which still included a role so large for Albert Finney that he earned a supporting-actor Oscar nomination.
Room is perhaps most similar to Beasts of the Southern Wild, another story about a parent-child relationship that became a surprising awards contender. But Beasts compelled voters on the strengths of its elaborate visual style and wunderkind director; Room, though beautifully directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is a much more intimate and restrained film. It is small in the way best-picture nominees so rarely are anymore. That makes Room an underdog in the long six-months awards campaign to come . . . but also a potential game changer if it manages to break through.
There are already doubters, and the fact that Room “preys upon maternal feelings” will surely be repeated as a knock on the film, part of a larger cultural notion that art about women isn’t important art. It’s a notion the Oscars haven’t been able to shake easily—why Matthew McConaughey’s bravura performance in Dallas Buyers Club helps the film win a best-picture nomination but Cate Blanchett can’t do the same for Blue Jasmine. Room can’t change all of that single-handedly, but in a year that’s been promising for women in Hollywood, it could at least be a strong sign of change to come.