Spotlight is a new feature dedicated to actors who continually turn in impressive performances yet fly under the radar, often not receiving the recognition they deserve. Spotlight aims to be both a tribute to and a showcase for up-and-coming performers who we believe have every right to be the next big thing. First up, Brie Larson.
While not yet a household name, 25-year-old Brie Larson has excelled in a number of diverse projects over the last decade or so. As well as indie dramas, blockbusters including 21 Jump Street, and TV work such as the outstanding Diablo Cody-penned United States of Tara, this diversity even encompasses a music career. Larson’s first and only album to date, Finally Out of P.E., was released in 2005. However, since performing ‘Black Sheep’ alongside Metric in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Larson has been solely focussing on acting, a trend which, judging by her slate of six films releasing this year alone, looks set to continue – and we’re all the happier for it.
The first of these is The Gambler, currently in cinemas, in which Larson enjoys second billing opposite Mark Wahlberg. While she features prominently in the trailer and is gifted more screentime than in many earlier projects, Larson’s character Amy is frustratingly sidelined or even seemingly forgotten for large portions of the narrative. In the film’s first act there is a scene in which Wahlberg’s character declares Amy a genius, yet Rupert Wyatt’s film – if not its marketers – is ultimately somewhat blind to Larson’s own genius, which in this movie includes a calm watchfulness coupled with an ability to powerfully evoke Amy’s thoughts and emotions even when she is without lines.
Fans of Larson’s back catalogue will be no strangers to her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roles, such as brief appearances in Community as a love interest for Abed. Yet, as acting theorist Stanislavsky said, “there are no small parts, only small actors”, and it is testament to Larson’s skill as an actress that she has managed to make an impact in a slew of “small parts”. A walk-on as one of the “Six Chicks” in the 2004 Jennifer Garner-starring 13 Going on 30 suggests director Gary Winick was an early believer in her talent; when the leader of the Six Chicks is shot in medium closeup it’s always Larson who appears in the shot with her, rather than any of the rest of the gang.
Her understated realism while on screen but not the camera’s focus in 2011’s Rampart is the perfect fit for the film’s naturalistic shooting style. As the oldest daughter of Woody Harrelson’s protagonist, a hot-headed cop whose anger issues have his life spiralling out of control, Larson aptly conveys her character Helen’s protective feelings toward her younger sister through body language, and utilises a range of well-observed facial expressions to convey the fact that Helen’s wisdom is infinitely beyond that of her father. This skill for silent and background acting is a hallmark of Larson’s performances, and is also key to her role in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon. Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut is a film which derives its best comedy from repetition bordering on monotony, followed by sudden variation. Larson’s performance as the titular Jon’s younger sister adheres to this formula, with Larson giving an ego-free performance as a silent, smartphone-absorbed teenager, before unleashing a perceptive diatribe which for many audience members surely accurately encapsulates the character of Jon’s sometime-girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson).
Brie Larson can be an arresting presence – witness the difficulty Michael C. Hall’s character experiences in pushing her out of his apartment in 2011’s The Trouble with Bliss – and she is both a master of deadpanning and of the knowing glance. This subtlety ensures she shines, crafting tangible people from supporting roles. In James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (2013), Larson tempers the angry energy and eye-rolling frustration of Cassidy, the long-suffering girlfriend of Miles Teller’s party animal Sutter, with a mournful desperation as she gives up on him overcoming his worrying behaviour. In the hands of a lesser actress this could have been a one-note performance resulting in a cardboard-cutout character. The Spectacular Now’s exemplary casting department must be applauded for snagging Larson, Teller and Shailene Woodley.
Larson is making an art form out of playing fiercely brave, gutsy, and complex women, and nowhere is this more evident than in 2013’s Short Term 12. In director Destin Cretton’s adaptation of his short of the same name Larson is Grace, a carer at a temporary group home for at-risk children and teenagers. Larson gives a bold, raw and committed performance, depicting Grace’s tenacious work ethic, born of a deep care for the children around her, and the way in which she uses this as a means of keeping herself closed off from boyfriend and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). Larson’s acting combines with the trajectory of Cretton’s narrative to allow Grace to give off an air of mystery, holding her vulnerabilities out of reach of both Mason and the audience, and only gradually revealing her demons as she immerses herself further into those of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a newcomer to the facility. Short Term 12 lit up the festival circuit in 2013, with Larson deservedly receiving a whole stack of Best Actress and Breakthrough Performer awards and nominations.
This track record and a diverse set of roles in upcoming projects paints an exciting picture for 2015. Larson will follow her soulful performance in The Gambler with appearances in Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies follow-up Digging for Fire, which screened at Sundance Film Festival earlier this week, and as a scientist working on GM rice in Basmati Blues.
Further proof of Larson’s versatility should come in the form of juxtaposing productions Trainwreck and Room. The former is a hushed-up Judd Apatow picture set to star Bill Hader and Amy Schumer (who will also provide the script). Room, however, is the most intriguing prospect of all. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Frank), and based on Emma Donoghue’s innovative 2010 novel, Room is the haunting story of a five-year-old boy who lives in a single room. Larson will play the boy’s mother, and, without giving anything away, with Short Term 12 she has proved herself more than capable of the significant demands this claustrophobic tale will place on its lead. Brie Larson deserves her time in the biggest of spotlights.