Abraham Attah and Jacob Tremblay at the Toronto International Film Festival (Getty)
Two of the best received titles at the Toronto International Film Festival are agonizingly tough-to-watch movies featuring kids in peril, Beasts of No Nation and Room. And the films flourish in part because they nailed the casting of their preteen leads. You could even argue that Abraham Attah and Jacob Tremblay gave two of the finest performances of the entire fest.
The 14-year-old Attah was working as a street vendor in his native Ghana when he was tapped by director Cary Fukunaga (True Detective) to star in the Netflix release Beasts, an adaptation of the Uzodinma Iweala book. Attah plays Agu, an 11-year-old boy who watches his family slain and is then forced to become a soldier in an unnamed war-torn African country. Under the merciless eye of Idris Elba’s commandant, the sweet-natured Agu is soon swinging a machete through a man’s skull, mowing down civilians in a haze of gunfire, and snorting heroin.
Attah’s calm demeanor, facial expressiveness, and remarkable ability to transform from innocent family jokester to gun-toting killing machine gives Beasts an intense pulse and gives the wider, tragic epidemic of child soldiers a heartbreaking young face. He is already drawing comparisons to Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), another non-actor plucked from obscurity who brought surprising depth and gravitas to an international crisis thriller, as well as Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Abdi and Wallis both ended up with an Oscar nominations, and so could Attah, who just won the Best Young Actor award at the Venice Film Festival.
Attah in ‘Beasts’ (left); Tremblay in ‘Room’ (right)
Tremblay has a bit more prior acting experience than Attah. The 8-year-old made his debut as Blue in the sequel The Smurfs 2 and has a few other smaller credits to his name. Tonally, though, the intense kidnapping thriller Room couldn’t be further from the light and fluffy CGI hijinks of Smurfette, Gargamel, and company.
Based on the popular novel by Emma Donoghue, Room pairs Brie Larson (Short Term 12) and Tremblay as a mother and son held captive in the backyard shed of a psychopath. Told from the perspective of Tremblay’s Jack, the story picks up as his ma, imprisoned for seven long years, hatches a plot to escape.
Alongside the continually impressive Larson, Tremblay delivers an alternately funny and devastating performance as a child who grows up in terrifyingly claustrophobic confines, and whose mother creates an imaginative world around them to maintain his innocence and explain their dire circumstances. For instance, as a daily ritual the two scream toward the sunroof in hopes that the “aliens” (neighbors or anyone passing by) might hear them. Jack is a sweet kid, but he’s also prone to outbursts (and who wouldn’t be, growing up in a box?), and like Attah, the young actor showcases incredible range in the role.
Both the actors have charmed audiences off the screen, too. At a post-screening Q&A for Beasts, Attah got laughs when he recalled his casting and mentioned how “he was in school playing football and a white man came,” and how intimidated he was meeting Elba, “'cause I am small and he is like a giant.” Tremblay, meanwhile, stole the show at Room’s TIFF press conference, telling reporters, “There’s a lot of people here, so it’s kind of like Disneyland, so I like it a lot.”
The fantasy life should be just be getting started for these two breakout stars.