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Movie Review: Room Really Is as Good as You’ve Heard

5 out of 5 stars.


When I asked friends if they wanted to join me for a screening of Room, the common response was, “I heard good things, but it seems like a tough watch.” The truth is, both assumptions are very true, and part of what makes Room a movie completely deserving of seeking out this fall.

Trigger warning for brief discussion of rape.

Considering the heavy subject matter and underlying ideas, Room is definitely a tough, emotional movie to watch, and it’s completely understandable that many people will want to stay away, rather than put themselves through the experience. But if you have been curious or on the fence about seeing the movie, you should know this: it’s a remarkably emotional experience that felt worthwhile to me despite the hard stuff. When you hear that a movie is about the “triumph of the human spirit,” it usually feels like an exaggeration, but walking out of the screening I attended, I honestly felt that was an honest description of why Room is such a remarkable movie; even with the sadness and downfalls and tragedies it portrays, the movie makes it feel like recovering and overcoming is possible.

If you haven’t’ heard the premise already, the titular “room” is also the setting of the film’s first act. It’s a four-walled world (with a metal door, locked with a code) that our narrator, 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) was born into and lives in all day, every day with his Ma (Brie Larson). They wake, eat, bathe, and play together; the only time Ma and Jack are apart is at night, when he’s put in a wardrobe to sleep, and Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) enters. As you can surmise from the description, this is clearly a case of a woman captured and raped, who had a son during these horrifying events.

However, Jack has no concept of these truths and has never been told such things. He was never told that the world is even a thing he’s missing out on. Jack seems to be a mostly happy but unbearably isolated child, not yet aware of his circumstances. He wakes up, celebrating his 5th birthday, while Ma reflects silently on the idea of having faced 5 long years (in fact, she had two years in isolation before Jack’s birth) in this room, and the idea of another one looming. She clearly loves Jack, but we still see the agony of all she tries to hide from her son (also unable to share her frustrations with the world with anyone). And now that he’s five, and Jack is old enough to be curious of Old Nick, who is threatening to be out of work and money, she plans an escape for Jack (hopefully also for her) to expose him to the world for the first time and return to the life stolen from her.

It’s hard to figure out how much to explain about this film without giving things away. What I’ve just mentioned is only the first third of the story, and there’s a dramatic shift in the second part, when it opens up to the world. Some have said the thrill and intimacy of the story of this captivity, family, and escape is so powerful, there is some feeling of being let down by the second part’s focus on Ma’s recovery and redemption and Jack’s discovery of the world. But personally, as engaged as I was by the first part of the film, the emotional story of Room—the psychological story of Brie Larson’s Post-Traumatic Stress and depression—is so engaging and gut-wrenching that I found it to become even better as the story grew. Few films look at a parent’s emotional struggles in the presence of their child with such understanding. This is always Jack’s story, but seeing his mother differently for the first time, as not just “ma,” and struggling to understand the mental changes she’s experiencing is a hard watch but gives a truly satisfying, rich experience.

And while we’re talking about Ma and Jack, Larson and Tremblay are most definitely responsible for two of the best performances of the year. Larson already more than proved herself one of the best actresses of the decade with Short Term 12, and Room shows the same range and emotional depth, this time forced to temper down for even longer periods (for the benefit of a child) and silently express her darkest moments. It’s my understanding that Tremblay is being positioned as a supporting actor, which might be the biggest awards travesty since Timothy Hutton was nominated (and won) Best Supporting Actor for Ordinary People. He’s the lead character and holds the audience’s attention from start to finish, making him clearly a Best Actor (and could earn the nomination). Whether you think child acting is different from adult acting, it is undeniable that he gives one of the best child performances, right alongside Quvenzhane Wallis in Beast of the Southern Wild or Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun.

As we hear all the time, a big part of getting strong performances from kids comes from the director’s hand with them, and Irish director Lenny Abrahamson shows a new set of skills as a director. After his bleak, ultra-realistic drama What Richard Did (a movie I didn’t love) and his surreal drama Frank (the movie that had Michael Fassbender wear a bobble head), this one seems at first like a strange choice for him. The sweetness on display, between mother and child, is some of the most honest mother-child interaction we’ve seen in years. The way Abrahamson leans into the emotions of the characters is different from his other works, until you realize all his films have been deeply interested in characters going through emotional traumas, and seeing them “try” to come out on the other side. This just happens to be his most optimistic view of the world and recovery.

Based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, which is entirely told from Jack’s perspective, the movie is at once about a very specific event but also embraces this fiction as metaphor (Donoghue acknowledges she was looking at multiple forms of childhood trauma and isolation). The movie is about the differences between perception and truth (Larson says very early to Jack “remember, it’s mind over matter”), the sacrifices parents make to protect their children, and way children have to break away from parents (often painfully) to truly become their own person. Jack only truly matures on-screen when left to his own devices to explore, make decisions, rebel or have a tantrum (including two extended narrative montages).

The fact that Abrahamson actually manages to capture a true sense of childhood in his filmmaking, without becoming too precious about hiding the story’s reality, makes for some pretty remarkable filmmaking. There have been other movies about parents attempting to protect their child from harsh realities (Life is Beautiful), and they’re always a tough balancing act. Embrace childlike elements too much, and the film can seem to be trivializing the actual tragedy. Make it too bleak, and it can feel sadistic to see a child in such danger. Room manages to make it clear that at this point in his life, Jack is is isolated and his reality skewed, but he does not feel the same pain (consciously) as Ma. This may not always be the case; the truth of his genetic father, the reality of such captivity, and an adult understanding of his mother’s trauma will come to him as he matures—hopefully when he can process these ideas and has the family support to hopefully overcome.

His greatest danger comes in the rare occasions when he’s finally in view of Old Nick, who he sees as a magical man whose comings and goings he finds confusing. His greatest trauma in the movie is what he sees of Ma’s psychological torment after they’ve escaped, because he didn’t have the whole picture of what she was going through. We know what is happening to Ma the entire time—her pain and torment—but only see it through Jack’s peripheral point of view. The simple differences in how Abrahamson films the scenes—wide, angular shots of Jack’s views, close, eye level when through ma’s eyes—are simple but key aspects. Jack is the one processing this narrative, and children understand the world through the filter of stories and music and play. Yes, he tells it like a bedtime story or fairytale, but there are many dark elements to those classic stories we only realize and understand when we’re older.

It should be mentioned that the supporting cast is pretty great, too. Joan Allen, the no-nonsense Earth mother of all actresses is equal parts warm and strong, and it makes perfect sense that she would play Larson’s mother—and never becomes an exaggerated, sickly sweet grandmother. I, and about 10 others I’ve talked to, said it is her scene with Jack towards the end that really ignites the waterworks. William H. Macy is fine in his brief role, once again playing a husband who can’t cope with life’s changes and reality (Pleasantville reunion). Orphan Black’s Tom McCamus and Amanda Brugel are terrific in their roles, providing calm characters that Jack can connect to, with McCamus playing Allen’s boyfriend Leo and Brugel a police officer. Odd as it is to say considering the darkness of the role, Sean Bridgers is excellent as Old Nick, turning him into both a terrifying, mysterious presence for Jack, while making him an all too real human being that could “trick” Larson’s character into coming with him when she was 17. The condescending moments when he calls Larson a dumb girl or claims she “doesn’t think” truly gave me chills. If he isn’t careful, considering his work in Room, The Woman, Jug Face, and Rectify, he could turn him into a young Bruce Dern.

I can’t say enough what a remarkable movie Room manages to be. Intimate, delicate, and complicated, it truly deserves the description of being a cinematic experience. Yes, I was crying a few times during this movie, and haven’t felt the anxiousness in the pit of my stomach in some time that I had watching Jack’s escape. But I also know I’m not alone in those feelings or in feeling a strong connection to the movie long after seeing it. Many have said this is the movie they had the strongest reaction to all year, and while you will be putting yourself through a true experience (you can’t be passive watching this), it is a very worthy experience to have.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

(image via A24 Films)

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