Could ‘Room’ Go the Distance for Best Picture?

As everyone struggles to name an early frontrunner in the Oscar race, don't sleep on this beloved indie.

The Academy Awards are four months away, but as with every year, experts are quick to proclaim a frontrunner in the month of October. Movies from “Steve Jobs” to “Spotlight” have been tossed around as the potential winner, while many people are willing to put films that no one has seen at the top of their predictions. (I’m not criticizing – that’s what “prediction” means.)

And yet, virtually no one is betting on one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and the one that has inspired the most passion out of audiences: A24’s “Room,” starring Brie Larson as a woman held in captivity with her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay).

At the Toronto Film Festival in September, I polled dozens of people about their favorite movie of the fest. Time and again, the same two movies came up, with people citing “Room” and “Spotlight” as the ones that rose above the pack. And yet when asked if either could go on to win best picture, the most frequent response I received was: “I’m not even sure it can get nominated.”

Obviously, things have changed since then; many people now consider “Spotlight” to be a frontrunner, while “Room” has become a stronger lock for a nomination after winning the People’s Choice Award at Toronto – of the last seven winners, six have gone on to receive nominations for best picture. The movie has also picked up audience awards from festivals as diverse as those in the Hamptons and Warsaw, just to name a couple.

But I’m surprised that anyone ever doubted “Room.” (Mind you, I’m not unbiased – I loved both the 2010 book the film is based on and I think the movie is spectacular.) The film has been met with fantastic reviews, currently sitting at a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, higher than the beloved “Martian” and Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” The only film currently ranked higher is, in fact, “Spotlight,” with 97%.

But plenty of films have critical love. What sets “Room” apart is the response from audiences, which has been nothing short of rapturous. It is connecting and eliciting a powerful reaction from those who see it more so than any other film in the race. And with lots of films being admired, that passion could push it over the edge. It reminds me of this year’s winner, “Birdman” – a movie not everyone loved, but those who did really loved it. When many were predicting the safe choice of “Boyhood,” members of the Academy showed they have a mind of their own and upended the idea of what an “Oscar movie” is.

Those who think “Room” can’t win best picture have varying arguments: “It’s too small.” “A24 is unproven in the awards game.” “It’s too sad.” But as we learn every year, the “rules” are changing. You can point to David versus Goliath stories like “The Hurt Locker” (the lowest-grossing best picture winner) triumphing over “Avatar” (literally the highest-grossing movie of all time). And small studios have won before, with indies like “Crash” and “The Artist” coming out on top.

As for “sad,” that same argument was used against “12 Years a Slave,” and we all know that went on to cinch the top prize on Oscar night. And though the material is undoubtedly tough, people aren’t coming out of “Room” saying it made them sad; in fact, they’re using words like “uplifting” and “inspiring.” A24 has been careful in their marketing to show that the film also takes place outside of captivity, stressing that above all, this is a movie about the love between mother and son.

People seem confident that the actors branch – the largest in the Academy – will recognize the film, as Larson is considered a lock for a best actress nomination. But with that faith in mind, the film is being sorely underestimated in other categories. Emma Donoghue did a remarkable job writing the screenplay from her own novel, showing a willingness to change things for the medium – the true definition of an adaptation. One wrong move could cause the entire film to fall apart, yet director Lenny Abrahamson never missteps. Actors don’t just recognize great performances; they can spot fantastic writing and directing when they see it.

This is also the kind of movie that relies on word of mouth, and so far it seems to be working. On Oct. 16, the film opened in only four theaters in New York and Los Angeles and averaged $29,575 per screen. Compare that to the $6,746 average of the No. 1 movie that weekend, “Goosebumps.” Last weekend, “Room” expanded to more theaters with an “A” Cinemascore, showing it likely has staying power.

In short, don’t count it out. This “Room” is bigger than you think.

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