TORONTO — If you ask Room director Lenny Abrahamson, Jacob Tremblay gave one of the best performances of the year as a five-year-old who gradually learns he’s spent his entire life in captivity.
The Vancouver-bred breakout is in nearly every scene of the Oscar-nominated Canada-Ireland co-production, and the nine-year-old has become a sought-after interview on various red carpets and will be a presenter at next week’s Academy Awards.
Tremblay’s co-star Brie Larson is considered a best actress front-runner for her turn as Jack’s fiercely devoted mother, who was abducted as a teen and gave birth while locked in a garden shed.
Abrahamson says the Academy Awards should revive its bygone “juvenile award” for Tremblay, who was submitted for consideration in the best supporting actor category but failed to get a nod.
“He deserves massive credit and I do wish there was a category in which he could be recognized,” Abrahamson said, noting that it can be difficult to measure a youngster’s performance against that of an adult.
“If you have a young actor category then you can judge people against their peers in a different way.”
There would seem to be no shortage of youngsters who could compete in such a category.
In addition to Tremblay, praise has poured in for teenager Abraham Attah as a child soldier in Beasts of No Nation and Milo Parker in Mr. Holmes, while other Canadian standouts include Nick Serino in Sleeping Giant and Jack Fulton in Closet Monster.
This year seems to have produced an exceptional number of remarkable performances from youngsters, says film producer Martin Katz, also chairman of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, which runs the Canadian Screen Awards.
He boasted of the academy’s decision to hand Tremblay a best actor nomination for a Canadian Screen Award next month, a race that will pit the youngster against seasoned stage and screen veteran Christopher Plummer.
“There’s only two people in the movie, effectively, who are clearly leads — Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay,” he says.
“For Jacob Tremblay to have been in a category of best supporting actor just because he’s younger than everyone else, I think, would not have been an appropriate way to treat his performance. Which was outstanding.”
If he wins, Tremblay would be the third child actor in five years to win an acting prize at Canada’s version of the Oscars.
Sophie Nelisse won best supporting actress in 2012 at age 11 for her turn in Monsieur Lazhar, while 16-year-old Rachel Mwanza won a best actress trophy the following year for War Witch.
Of course, the Oscars have seen their fair share of kid contenders over the years.
At age nine, Quvenzhane Wallis competed for best actress in 2013 for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Abigail Breslin sought the best supporting actress title in 2007 for Little Miss Sunshine at age 10, and Saoirse Ronan, a best actress nominee this year for Brooklyn, chased the best supporting actress crown in 2008 for Atonement at age 13.
Before them, best supporting actress winners included 10-year-old Tatum O’Neal for Paper Moon in 1974, 11-year-old Anna Paquin for The Piano in 1994, and 16-year-old Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker in 1963.
In the ’30s and ’40s, several child actors were given smaller-sized honorary Oscars, dubbed “Juvenile Awards.” Since then, children and adults have been nominated side-by-side in competitive categories.
But Abrahamson suggested it might not be fair to compare a youngster to an adult.
“It’s very hard for voters to know always how much is the child and how much was sort of engineered in by the filmmakers,” he says from Los Angeles, noting he had to employ a few tricks to elicit what he needed for his Oscar-nominated work as director.
“It’s a different way of working sometimes with children, especially on a film like Room where the material was challenging and where it wouldn’t be appropriate for Jake to always know what’s really going on in the scene.”
The Oscars take place Feb. 28.