Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation.
Children are placed in situations of heart-in-your-throat horror — in that, they're both tough to watch — in two of fall's most anticipated movies: Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation and the Emma Donoghue adaptation Room. Child endangerment and suffering have always been reliable ways to demand an emotional reaction from whoever's watching, which is why they're also easy to resent. It's a primal impulse to feel protective over children, and seeing them menaced onscreen can feel like someone jabbing cynically at an exposed nerve.
Miraculously, neither of these movies, the former about an 11-year-old war conscript and the latter about a kidnap victim growing up in near isolation, feels exploitative, which speaks to their quality as well as to how they're framed. They're both inspired by real situations, which helps, but they also couch their stories in the point of view of their young protagonists rather than looking down at them from a distance. They're about the experience of being young as well as the experience of enduring terrible things.
Agu (first-time actor Abraham Attah, 14, a real stunner) becomes a child soldier in Beasts of No Nation, Netflix's debut dip into original scripted films, adapted from Uzodinma Iweala's novel of the same name. But before that, he lives a life of tense but relative ordinariness with his family in a buffer zone still untouched by the war that's been raging. The movie leaves the conflict, with its clashing acronymed forces, vague in the same way it leaves its West African setting unnamed — it's not meant to be about a specific situation, and anyway, its protagonist is more interested in bantering with his older brother and playing with his friends than understanding the details.
Fukunaga, who's emerged as the MVP of True Detective's first season after departing before its disastrous second, sketches out this precarious stability with affectionate efficiency, then rips it all away in a few sickening scenes that send Agu running by himself into the forest, his family members all dead or gone. He wanders into the clutches of some rebel forces, where the Commandant (Idris Elba), swaggering out of the foliage bare-chested but in a military beret, deigns not to kill the boy but to add him to his ragtag army, promising him a chance at revenge against the people he saw slaughter his father.
It's never very clear just who Agu ends up fighting, but he fights and he kills, surrendering to the new role in which he's been placed with an anguished inevitability. Beasts of No Nation develops a hallucinatory edge as its hero learns to hack someone to death with a machete, as he befriends another boy, Strika, who doesn't speak, and as he partakes in the drugs the soldiers all use before heading into battle. At one point, everything melts into tones of red, as if so the blood won't show. At another, he and Strika laugh like the kids they still are while in the background one of their compatriots executes someone. Agu's brainwashing isn't an erasure of who he was so much as a complete replacement of the normalcy he previously knew — he's just trying to keep up with this terrible surrogate family.
Elba has always had an unreal charisma that the movie puts to decidedly warped use — his Commandant is monstrous but magnetic, a cult leader, abuser, and father figure, the head of a fucked up band of lost boys addled on war and cocaine. He is savior and destroyer for his followers, a man with no name and no history, standing unruffled, mid-assault, while bullets dust the ground at his feet. With his long takes and hazily beautiful landscapes, Fukunaga gives the film a visual grandeur that makes it feel like it's taking place after the world has ended, and all that's left for Agu is this morass of endless, uncaring violence.
Five-year-old Jack (played by 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay), the lead of Room, discovers a new world, too. But first he has to learn the truth about his old one, a locked garden shed he shares with his mother, Joy (Brie Larson), and, each night, the man who kidnapped her seven years ago, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Like Agu, Jack sometimes narrates his film, and it's through him that the awful reality of the situation filters — he was conceived and born in that tiny space, and has never seen and doesn't even really understand that there's anything beyond it. Old Nick brings food and "Sunday treats," and in the evenings Jack hides in the wardrobe until their captor is done raping Joy and has left, and she can carry her child back to bed.
It's a nightmare, but Jack doesn't know that. "Room," as he calls it (why bother with "our" when it's the only one you think exists), is all he's ever known, and for him, this is just what life is like. Room, which is deftly directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Frank), is careful to show Jack, a blue-eyed sprite with hair that's never been cut, at play, entertaining himself with homemade toys and watching the battered television. It's in Joy's face that we see the trauma register, in the tattered edges of the routines she's created for the two of them to fill the day, and in the forced pleasantries she tries to greet her abuser with to make sure he doesn't punish them by cutting off power or food.
Larson, who this movie should finally vault to deserved star status, exudes exhaustion and barely held-off despair from every pallid pore, but she valiantly shields her son from it and from the attentions of the man she's been hiding him from. Jack's company may have saved her life, but he's also a standard 5-year-old who can be demanding, sulky, and selfish, and Larson is heartbreaking in the rare times in which Joy, a marvel of maternal love and endurance, does run out of patience and cracks and we're reminded of the terribly mistreated young person she still is herself.
Room, which Donoghue adapted from her own best-seller, doesn't quite translate the first-person point of view of the novel, which is narrated by Jack, his limited understanding like a peephole through which we see the larger, ominous landscape. But it stays rooted in Jack's perspective even when he and Joy make their escape, and the horizons of his universe abruptly and traumatically widen — his first glimpse of the open sky is beautiful and, we understand, vertiginous. There's plenty more story to tell as Jack and his mother rejoin the outside, and it's done with abiding compassion, even as the ordeal catches up with Joy. Jack, a doctor tells her, is still "plastic," and Room makes the strength of that clear. When everything's new, learning your previously limited world is in fact boundless is just another lesson to accept on the path to growing up.