Movie News & Reviews

Will actress Brie Larson thank Elk Grove on Oscar night?

Jacob Tremblay stars with best actress Oscar nominee Brie Larson in “Room.”
Jacob Tremblay stars with best actress Oscar nominee Brie Larson in “Room.” A24 Films

If Oscar prognosticators are correct and Brie Larson reaches the podium at Sunday night’s ceremony to collect her lead-actress award, one Elk Grove resident will be cheering with particular enthusiasm.

Joan Smock was Larson’s third-grade teacher at Pleasant Grove Elementary, which Larson, now 26 and up for an Academy Award for her performance in the abduction drama “Room,” attended until age 8.

That’s when Larson, then known as Brianne, moved to Los Angeles to forge a career that would take her from sitcom kid (the short-lived Bob Saget series “Raising Dad”) to teen pop recording artist (“Finally Out of P.E.”) to cable-series regular (“United States of Tara”) and, finally, highly respected film actress who moves seamlessly between challenging independent films (“Room,” “Short Term 12”) and studio comedies (“Trainwreck”).

“She was an absolute sweetheart – a teacher’s dream,” Smock said of her former student. Larson “always came to school with a smile” and was diligent about class work and kind to others. “If somebody were to fall down, she would be the first person to help them back up,” Smock said.

“I have such fond memories of that place,” Larson, in a 2013 interview with The Bee, said of her old elementary school.

Though Larson moved with her mother and sister to L.A. after her chiropractor parents split, she made monthly visits north to see her father, and watched Elk Grove sprout from farm town to sprawling suburb. “I had these very specific memories of the old road where our dad would drive his old Mercedes through the puddles, and make these splashes,” she said. “Now, it’s like a six-lane highway.”

Smock said the young Larson spoke to her often about how she was taking dance and singing classes. She saw Larson’s talent firsthand at a Christmas show in Sacramento, to which Larson had invited Smock and Smock’s daughter. “She sang and danced to ‘Santa Baby,’ and my daughter and I were just flabbergasted,” Smock said. “She stole the entire show.”

Larson left for L.A. midway through the school year. “(Her) mom took her down because Brianne wanted to find out if she could get any roles,” Smock said. Larson completed her schoolwork for the year partly through assignments Smock would FedEx to her.

Larson has swept the pre-Oscar awards – Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA – for her wrenching, resilient performance in “Room.” She plays a woman who, while held captive in a shed by a sexual predator who abducted her as a teen, tries to create a daily routine for, and engage the mind of, her young son (a wonderful Jacob Tremblay) born during her captivity.

The actress told The Associated Press that the period just after she moved to L.A., when she shared a Murphy bed with her sister and mother in a studio apartment, informed her preparation for “Room”: “We didn’t have much. And yet I remember it being one of the greatest times of my life – just me, my mom and my sister all the time, doing whatever we wanted. (My mom) had such a strong imagination.”

If Larson wins, she will be the first performer from Sacramento to take home an Oscar since Tom Hanks won back-to-back statuettes for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump” in 1994-95. Larson’s Academy Award would cap a wave of recent achievements by film professionals with local ties.

Sacramento’s movie-awards glory lay, for many years, entirely on the shoulders of onetime Sacramento State student Hanks. But then Jessica Chastain, who once trod local community-theater stages, scored successive Academy Award nominations, in 2012 for “The Help” and 2013 for “Zero Dark Thirty.”

St. Francis High School graduate Greta Gerwig snagged a Golden Globe nomination two years ago for her starring role in “Frances Ha,” which she co-wrote. Gerwig will make her solo directing debut with the forthcoming “Lady Bird,” which will star current lead actress Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) as a Sacramento high school student.

The biggest behind-the-camera star with local connections is Ryan Coogler, who studied film and played wide receiver on the football team at Sacramento State. Coogler’s micro-budgeted 2013 debut feature “Fruitvale Station” won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and an Independent Spirit Award for best first feature. Coogler’s big-studio follow-up, “Creed,” drew critical acclaim and big box office numbers when it was released this past November, and Coogler will direct “Black Panther,” Marvel’s first film focused on a black superhero.

“Fruitvale” lead Michael B. Jordan stars in “Creed,” an offshoot of the “Rocky” series, as Apollo Creed’s boxer son who recruits Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. The Academy’s subsequent recognition of Stallone in the supporting actor category – while overlooking the film’s black star and director – helped fuel the #OscarsSoWhite protest, which has eclipsed all other 2016 Oscar narratives.

Coogler is expected to attend an event in Flint, Mich., to raise awareness of that city’s water crisis on Oscar night. He encouraged Stallone to attend the Academy Awards, to represent the film, Stallone told reporters at the Oscar nominee luncheon earlier this week.

Stallone is a front-runner in his category, but Larson is an even stronger one in hers. Ronan, considered Larson’s closest competition for her performance as a 1950s Irish immigrant in “Brooklyn,” has won critics’ awards but no major trophies. Also vying for the lead-actress Oscar are Cate Blanchett (“Carol”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”) and Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”).

Smock said she always suspected her former student would do well in Hollywood, based on the determination Larson exhibited at age 8. “It is very unusual to have somebody at that age have that caliber of talent and drive,” said Smock, who retired in 2012 from Pleasant Grove Elementary after 34 years of teaching. “I knew she was going to rise.”

But Smock has been reluctant to tackle the difficult subject matter of “Room.”

“Being a mom myself, I don’t know if I can watch it,” she said. Seeing any actress in the role might be difficult, but seeing Larson, the former student Smock calls “a little love bug,” would be “double trouble,” she said.

Smock will be glued to her TV Sunday night, however. She’s become an awards follower since Larson’s been in the hunt.

“I have never watched the entire Golden Globes in my life” before now, Smock said. “But I watched for Brianne.”

Brie Larson

Age: 26

Local connection: Larson, who is nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in “Room,” attended elementary school in Elk Grove.

How to see the Academy Awards: The show starts at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on Channel 10 (KXTV). Red-carpet coverage begins at 4 p.m.

How to see “Room”: The film, up for four Oscars including best picture, is playing at the UA Olympus Pointe theater in Roseville. It’s also available for digital rental and comes out on DVD March 1.

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