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Great Movies With Just a Few Characters

By all accounts, Room (2015), based on Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed novel from 2010, is an exceptional movie. Despite a harrowing premise of abduction, imprisonment, and sexual assault, it has been resonating with audiences and critics alike.

One aspect of the film that caught my attention is that much of it takes place in a single room with just two characters, a young mother and her kindergarten-aged son. Critics have hailed the performances of the actors, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, which got me to thinking of movies I’ve enjoyed in the past with just a few characters and outstanding acting performances.

Another Great Movie with Two Main Characters – an Adult and a Child

One such movie that came to mind immediately was Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), if only because I happened to watch it again just the other night. Here Dustin Hoffman (the father) and Justin Henry (his first-grade son) take up the bulk of the screen time as they struggle to adapt to life after the mother leaves. The acting in their scenes together is just incredible, completely natural and absorbing. Much of these scenes were improvised, with Hoffman feeding Henry lines – sometimes off script – and Henry simply reacting in the moment. I’ve heard that Larson employed similar techniques with Tremblay in Room.

Great Movies with Two Main Adult Characters

In Before Sunrise (1995), we spend a most pleasant night with American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy) as they wander the streets of Vienna mostly simply talking. Again, the two actors are very natural and believable. In their early 20s here, they meet up again in Paris in their 30s in Before Sunset (2004), and we find them in Greece in Before Midnight (2013) when they’re in their early 40s. I hope the series continues.

Bring together a prolific director from my teen years (John Hughes), one of my all-time favourite comedians (Steve Martin), and Canadian great John Candy, and you get the wonderful Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987). It’s extremely funny and entertaining, yet poignant too, and again held together by two flawless performances.

It’s hard to imagine that a film of two friends talking as they eat dinner at a restaurant could make for compelling cinema, yet that, essentially, describes My Dinner with Andre (1981). And it is compelling, just like good radio can be, as we listen to the conversation and fill in the images in our minds. This wouldn’t work so well without the strong acting performances of André Gregory and Wallace Shawn, who, in common with many of the other actors I’ve mentioned here, seem to be simply playing themselves.

Movies set in outer space often have sparse casts, with the excellent Moon (2009) going to the extreme of having just two characters, one of whom is a computer not unlike a mobile version of 2001’s HAL. The human character is played by Sam Rockwell, but I can’t really say much about what happens to him without revealing spoilers. Instead I’ll simply note that after recently enjoying Matt Damon in The Martian (2015), which by way of contrast features a human spending time alone on Mars, I was reminded of Moon, which I think is just as good.

Great Movies with Just One Main Character

Staying with the space theme, my favourite experience at the Civic in the past few years was watching Gravity (2013). I’ve been fascinated by space travel since I was a little boy, and floating around in space looking down at Earth about 200 miles below, pretty much from inside Sandra Bullock’s helmet, was something else.

Another great movie in the vein of “How the hell am I going to get out of this situation and not die?” is 127 Hours (2010). It stars James Franco, who, after being trapped in a narrow canyon in the Utah wilderness, manages to rescue himself in a completely unimaginable way. Like Bullock in Gravity, Franco is riveting throughout his ordeal, and the emotional release you experience when they make it to safety at the end of each film feels well-earned.

A less intense, but equally enjoyable lone survivor movie is Cast Away (2000), starring Tom Hanks. As always, Hanks’ performance is impeccable, and it’s a pleasure to spend nearly the entire movie in his sole company as he struggles to survive being shipwrecked on an island for four years.

Great Movies with One Main Character and (an) Animal(s)

I read “Life of Pi” by French-Canadian author Yann Martel in 2001 and never imagined that a film could ever be made of the book, yet alone one as good as Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) turned out to be. It is essentially the story of Pi, a teenage boy (Suraj Sharma), who becomes marooned in the middle of the Pacific in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for more than seven months. (Really.) Beyond the details of the story itself, the film provokes some philosophical questions that take it to a whole other level.

Rounding off my list is the classic 80s “man alone in the wilderness” movie Never Cry Wolf (1983), based on the book by great Canadian author and environmentalist, Farley Mowat. Charles Martin Smith portrays “Tyler” (Mowat) as he studies and lives among wolves in the Arctic. The movie has particular local resonance now as it considers the complex relationship between wolves, caribou, and Inuit.