Reviews of Room, Franny, Concussion and Beasts Of No Nation

Actor Idris Elba is magnificent as the Commandant in Beasts Of No Nation.
Actor Idris Elba is magnificent as the Commandant in Beasts Of No Nation. PHOTO: NETFLIX
Will Smith as Dr Bennet Omalu in the biopic Concussion and the stars of the film Franny (above), Richard Gere, Dakota Fanning and Theo James.
Will Smith as Dr Bennet Omalu in the biopic Concussion and the stars of the film Franny (above), Richard Gere, Dakota Fanning and Theo James. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE
Will Smith (above) as Dr Bennet Omalu in the biopic Concussion and the stars of the film Franny, Richard Gere, Dakota Fanning and Theo James.
Will Smith (above) as Dr Bennet Omalu in the biopic Concussion and the stars of the film Franny, Richard Gere, Dakota Fanning and Theo James. PHOTO: CATHAY-KERIS FILMS

The gifted child actors in Room and Beasts Of No Nation give the films emotional anchors

Films about horrific situations should feel horrific. This rule is ignored too often in films that claim to address some social evil, only to avoid doing anything so gauche as to actually show it.

No such reticence is found in two films that deal with tough subjects. The first is about a woman imprisoned and raped for years; the other about children forced to take up arms in a civil war.

Room (PG13, 118 minutes, opens tomorrow, ) earned Brie Larson a Best Actress (Drama) Golden Globe on Monday.

The 26-year-old has created a remarkable career, covering comedy (the Community television show) and drama (Short Term 12, 2013; The Spectacular Now, 2013). It is high time recognition came her way.

Room is distressing to watch, but it is never explicit. The cruelty fills each frame like an invisible gas. Imprisoned in a tiny four-walled structure, Joy Newsome (Larson) cares for her five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the result of visits by her captor, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers).

Jack calls the only world he has ever known Room. His mind refracts Room into a million points of wonder. To him, the space is not a prison, but a cocoon. Why should he care about leaving? This is Stockholm Syndrome, from birth.

The emotional logic of the film, perverse as it is, makes sense, and Irish director Lenny Abrahamson explores it fully. He works with a screenplay from Emma Donoghue, adapting her own 2010 novel of the same name.

The director has a way with characters too fragile for the world. It's a structure he explored in Frank (2014), the story of a childlike musician who, like Jack, fashions a universe of his own making inside his head.

Child actor Tremblay is the beating heart of Room, as is Abraham Attah in Beasts Of No Nation (R21, 137 minutes, now showing on Netflix, ). Writer-director Cary Fukunaga adapts a 2005 novel of the same title from Nigerian writer Uzodinma Iweala to make this, a biography of one of thousands of African child soldiers.

In an unnamed West African nation, Agu (Attah) is a boy who is suddenly alone after family members are slaughtered by government forces. He is adopted by the Commandant (Idris Elba), leader of a rag-tag rebel faction.

Over a few weeks, Agu is indoctrinated, trained and brutalised to become a fighter. Child soldiers are valued because their moral instincts are formed in war, so they kill without remorse. As with Jack in Room, Agu's normal is anything but.

Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, 2011; the True Detective television series, 2014) packs the scenes with a documentary-like detail. The boys snort a mix of cocaine and burnt gunpowder called "brown-brown" before battle; Fukunaga does not shy away from showing what child killers are capable of doing.

Elba is magnificent as the Commandant. Magnetic and manipulative, he becomes father and mother to his tiny troopers and makes you see why they are willing to kill and die for him.

The Will Smith vehicle Concussion (PG13, 123 minutes, opens tomorrow, ) finds the actor in prestige drama mode as he was in The Pursuit Of Happyness (2006) or Seven Pounds (2008).

In this biopic of forensic pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu, Smith plays the Nigerian emigre who stumbles upon a pattern of head injuries in autopsies of former professional football players, injuries that caused the men to harm themselves or others before their death.

The National Football League (NFL) will have no doings with the doctor, unless it is to silence him.

"We own the day of the week the Church used to own," says one character, menacingly.

Peter Landesman (Parkland, 2013) strains to make Omalu's battles feel just and epic in scale, but the drama feels as doughy and shapeless as an athlete too long out of training.

If Concussion tries to be stadium-sized, then Franny

(NC16, 93 minutes, opens tomorrow, ) is the opposite. It is a modest, acting-driven piece about the futility of recreating the past.

Franny (Richard Gere) insinuates himself, at first subtly, then with more force, into the lives of couple Olivia (Dakota Fanning) and Luke (Theo James). Olivia is the daughter of his best friends, now dead.

Everyone, especially Fanning, gives fine performances. But Andrew Renzi, making his feature debut, directs and edits this television-style drama as if it were a Hitchcockian thriller, leading to expectations of a payoff that never arrives.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline 'Coming of age in difficult times'. Print Edition | Subscribe