A seemingly cloudy Oscar race became a little clearer on Sunday as the Toronto International Film Festival awarded the harrowing drama Room the People's Choice prize, an honour that is often a predictor of Academy Award success.
The Canadian-Irish film stars Brie Larson and eight-year-old Jacob Tremblay of Vancouver as a mother and son who live in a shed that he thinks is the entire world.
Emma Donoghue's Room won the 2010 Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the 2011 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book, Caribbean and Canada region. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 and a finalist for the Orange Prize in 2011.
Ireland's Lenny Abrahamson directed the suspenseful yet touching tale that's based on Canadian author Emma Donoghue's celebrated novel.
It won the $15,000 Grolsch People's Choice Award at the end of an 11-day festival in which there appeared to be no clear front-runner.
"We shot this film in Toronto and it's incredible that this happened," said Room producer David Gross.
"I know it's rare ... that a Canadian film actually wins this award."
Festival director Piers Handling said the balloting on the prize was "very, very close."
'When you get the toughest guy in Hollywood bawling in one of the screenings, you think you've got something special.' - Noah Segal, Elevation Pictures
"Room kind of ignited audiences," he said. "I think it's a very serious film but it's a very emotional film."
The film even had Scottish star Gerard Butler "bawling" when he saw it at the fest, said the distributor, noting they urged the actor-producer to view it after hearing he was looking to cast a 10-year-old boy in his next film.
"When you get the toughest guy in Hollywood bawling in one of the screenings, you think you've got something special," said Noah Segal, co-president of Toronto-based Elevation Pictures.
TIFF win a precursor to further success
Last year's People's Choice winner was The Imitation Game, which went on to get eight Oscar nominations, nabbing one golden statuette for best adapted screenplay.
Several previous People's Choice winners have also gone one to nab best picture at the Oscars, including 12 Years a Slave, The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire.
Another Canadian film won a major prize at Sunday's event — the inaugural Platform award.
Veteran Canadian documentary maker Alan Zweig's Hurt, a portrait of disgraced runner Steve Fonyo, beat out 11 other titles to win the $25,000 award that was chosen by an international jury.
Room beat out first runner-up Angry Indian Goddesses and second runner-up Spotlight, Tom McCarthy's star-studded journalism thriller that was one of several festival films that received strong reviews.
Other top titles with critics at the fest included Ridley Scott's outerspace tale The Martian starring Matt Damon, Jean-Marc Vallee's Demolition starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Scott Cooper's gangster thriller Black Mass starring Johnny Depp.
"Overall I would say it wasn't necessarily the best TIFF as in recent years," said Jake Coyle, film writer for the Associated Press.
"A number of the stronger films at the festival had played at other festivals, like Venice or Telluride or Cannes."
Handling conceded there wasn't "one breakout film" at the fest this year, but he still felt it "was a really, really strong year."
"Sometimes when you have a breakout film, it's nice, you know, a buzz film like 12 Years a Slave or The King's Speech or Slumdog Millionaire, and everyone coalesces around that," he said.
"But I think that puts some of the other really good films into the shadows. This year I think it was just a strong year for that type of ... artistically driven commercial cinema."
More Canadian winners
Other award winners on Sunday included Andrew Cividino's Sleeping Giant, which took the City of Toronto Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film.
Stephen Dunn's Closet Monster won the Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature Film.
Film critic Anne Thompson praised this year's fest for the amount of awards contenders it had, noting it's also a "buyers' festival" where many films get the most amount of notice.
Room, for instance, premiered at the Tellurude Film Festival before going to Toronto — but TIFF is where it really took off.
"It needed to do this, it needed to go to Toronto and really hit with everyone there and it did," said Thompson, founder and editor-in-chief of daily entertainment industry blog Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire.
"And now Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are very strong actor contenders in the Oscar derby."