Christian Bale in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” That would always have been my answer.
If the question is: “What’s the greatest performance by a child you’ve ever reviewed?” Bale would always have been my answer. He was 12 when Spielberg’s film was made and it will always remain one of the great child performances in the history of movies – a full performance, not just song and dance and cuteness surrounding a cyclone of tears.
In other words, I’ve always put Bale in Spielberg’s virtually hidden masterpiece ahead of Quvhanzne Walis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “ Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore in “E. T.,” Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon,” Dakota Fanning in “I Am Sam,” Kirsten Dunst in “Interview with a Vampire,” Anna Paquin in “The Piano,” even Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver” (which, in retrospect, seems as much a triumph of casting and costuming as anything else.)
Until last Friday that is.
That’s when I saw a film that I, quite literally, couldn’t get out of my head for two straight days. No matter what else I concentrated on, the film’s scenes and performances and mood and essence were always back there bursting to the front of my attention.
To put it mildly, that happens to me seldom. It marked my reaction to the opening day of the 1958 film that made movies a lifelong obsession – Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” which I saw at 13 and which ever after changed the way I thought about movies.
It’s happened since every five years or so when a film completely colonizes my sense of reality for a while.
That’s what happened when I saw Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” on Friday morning. And especially the performance by Jacob Tremblay in it.
The film is scheduled to open on Nov. 6 in area theaters amid a string of some of the year’s best. I’ll review it in full when the time comes.
If multiple sources have Tremblay’s 2006 birth date right, he was 8 when he made the film in Toronto. He’s playing a 5-year-old but it’s more than possible he was small enough at 8 to get away with playing a child celebrating his fifth birthday as the movie opens.
But Tremblay’s performance hit me as something that is almost not of this earth. He is at first playful and fanciful and lovable; then fear-stricken and given to childish tantrums for foolish reasons. And then, in the movie’s second half – where you get a sweeping and upsetting meditation on everything in the film’s harrowing first half – Tremblay somehow convinces you completely that he has awakened to the world for the first time.
It’s astounding to watch. Dumbfounding.
And, most importantly, it’s far from show business as usual for child performers.
They’ve been a specialty of the movies since Jackie Coogan made Chaplin’s “The Kid.” And was followed by Jackie Cooper’s and Margaret O’Brien’s tears. And Shirley Temple tapping her little shoes off – not to mention Mickey Rooney getting the kids to put on a show and Judy Garland’s tremulous, tear-soaked voice over the rainbow making Buffalo’s Harold Arlen the most fondly remembered composer in film history.
That’s not what Tremblay is doing. He’s no showbiz kid.
I went to camp with a showbiz kid way back in the day. He used to sing his little heart out on the Perry Como Show, as if he were in training to become the next Steve Lawrence (or, more likely, Steve Rossi.) Mostly, he went around the summer camp expecting to be treated like a little prince who had somehow landed in the Adirondacks. He grew up to be a minor Broadway composer which, I must confess, is far more impressive in its devotion to music than I’d have expected from such a princeling among us commoners.
Jacob Tremblay is something else. He’s not just tears and tantrums; he’s confusion and loneliness and awkwardness and dependence and pure love and need.
He seems, in a way for which I can’t really find a single precedent, wallopingly real.