Thursday, November 5, 2015

Hello, World: Powerful, vivid "Room" reverberates with truth and hope

Room (2015)
118 min., rated R.

"Room" is a hard film to discuss without somewhat stripping it of its affecting power, especially if viewers walk in knowing as little about it as possible. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (2014's "Frank") and adapted by Emma Donoghue from her 2010 best-seller, the film is presented from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy whose worldview is limited. This choice was employed in Donoghue's book and, while it could have muted the story's emotional impact on screen, it guides the film and delicately handles the footing between the horror of a traumatic situation and the safe storybook imagination that of a child. How much "Room" will resonate with the viewer is also in no small part to its vivid performances.

Seven years into the nightmarish scenario that changed her life, Joy (Brie Larson), now going by 'Ma,' and young son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) make a life together in Room. It's a 10-by-10-foot space with a bed, a bathtub, a wardrobe, a fridge, a stove, a sink, a toilet, and a TV. Jack doesn't understand that there's a world beyond the walls of Room and that it's actually a shed. There is an enemy on the other side: a middle-aged man named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) put Ma there before she had Jack and he visits at night to bring Ma living supplies when Jack is asleep in Wardrobe. Once Ma sees an opportunity in saving her son from their imprisoned life, she orchestrates a plan that pays off. Eventually, Ma will join her son on the other side, but Jack first experiences the outside work as if it were a different planet. 

A film of both tough honesty and unsentimental empathy, "Room" doesn't spell out or make any fuss of the harrowing situation in which Ma has been placed into Room. It's through the telling details that we understand what Jack does not. The viewer vicariously experiences how Ma and particularly Jack live daily in Room and then adjust to the real world. Director Lenny Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen (2012's "Les Misérables") create an insular world inside of that claustrophobic room (and the piano keys behind Stephen Rennicks' music score have a simple grace and restraint). It's all Jack knows, as he says good morning to Lamp, Stove, Sink, TV, and Skylight. He watches TV but doesn't understand that the people on the TV are real, just like him. When a mouse gets into Room, he doesn't understand that the rodent goes outside the walls of Room. Lest one think the film's second half spent in the real world will be less compelling than the chamber-drama of the first section, that is not the case here. It actually deepens the dynamic between a mother and her child.

If you've been paying attention, 26-year-old Brie Larson is already beyond reproach, utilizing her naturalism in standout supporting parts (Showtime's 2009-2011 series "The United States of Tara," 2012's "Rampart" and "21 Jump Street," 2013's "The Spectacular Now," "Don Jon," and this year's "Trainwreck") and being just plain excellent as the lead in the still-somehow-underseen "Short Term 12" (one of the top films of 2013). Her performance as Ma/Joy will certainly have the uninitiated taking notice of Larson, who's stunningly and achingly true as her character has had her promising future robbed of her, placed through the emotional wringer as a young mother, and then has to have developed an inner strength for herself and her little boy. The chance she must take to hatch an escape plan puts a big strain on Ma, and Larson conveys it beautifully. Jacob Tremblay is extraordinary as Jack. As so many child actors can be cutesy, precocious moppets, the 9-year-old is challenged through and through and he's a marvel to watch. Coming off nearly feral when he first comes in contact with people outside of Room, Jack is bright for his age but as developmentally challenged as an alien to the new world. The very first time he opens his eyes to the sky in the outside world will take the viewer's breath away; like Jack, we, too, see the world for the first time.


Director Lenny Abrahamson's skillfully sensitive direction and Emma Donoghue's thoughtful script integrate to tell such a potentially despairing story that dodges the pitfalls of becoming a depressing dirge or misstepping into phony sentiment, unsubtle melodrama, and easy fixes. It's a powerfully tender portrait of a mother and son's love and a reassuring journey for both of them. Though Larson and Tremblay are the anchors of the story, the supporting cast does just that; they support. As Ma/Joy's mother Nancy, Joan Allen is a pillar of warmth and understanding, finding devastating layers as a mother who's been without her daughter for seven years and now blessed to have her back and meet her grandson for the first time. William H. Macy has less to do in a less-complete subplot, as Ma/Joy's father Robert, who's now divorced and unable to accept that her daughter bore a son during her disappearance, but that's a minor quibble. Instead, Tom McCamus wonderfully picks up the slack as Nancy's laid-back live-in partner Leo. As a story like this only can, "Room" finishes on an untidy and unforced note that is poetic and still satisfactory. It understands the healing process takes time but isn't without hope and resilience, and in the best ways, the film takes a piece out of you and leaves you to process it for days on end.

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