Release Date: January 15th, 2016 (UK); January 22nd, 2016 (US)
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay
Room is a beautiful film. It’s heartbreaking and humorous and touching. It is fearless, it is personal, it is real. It’s also difficult to discuss without making reference to at least one crucial plot point. If you have seen the trailer, you’ll know which reveal I’m alluding to and will hopefully stick around for the subsequent discussion. Otherwise, it would be best to see the film without any prior knowledge and then revisit this review thereafter. Should you choose to do that, just know you are about to see one of the best movies of the year.
It follows young mother Joy (Brie Larson) who has spent years trapped in a grimy shed alongside her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Jack only knows the shed, christened Room, having been born there. He believes Room is the whole world; she knows it is not. They survive on amenities provided by their captor Old Nick (Sean Bridger) and have a few other basic items such as a bath and a television. “TV persons are flat and made of colours,” Jack marvels, exemplifying his troubling lack of knowledge breadth. He also refers to the toilet as “Toilet” and the lamp as “Lamp”, these inanimate objects having taken on the role of living organisms.
We feel part of Jack’s imagined landscape, its closed-in vastness, established through impeccable production design and crafty cinematography. Mouldy utensils bear foodstuffs that arrive via magic (since Jack is unaware of the outside world, he believes Old Nick’s existence is bred from some sort of sorcery) and stains flood the floor — a large mess near the bed is probably the spot Joy gave birth. Danny Cohen rarely, if ever, captures the entirety of Room in one shot, instead segmenting the area into various micro-locales (the bed, the wardrobe, the kitchen) and this gives off a false sense of capacity. However, when Room feels too falsely spacious, Cohen re-establishes its compactness by intimately honing in on Joy and Jack’s faces.
Joy does everything in her power to shield Jack from Old Nick. Whereas she must grapple with daily pain, her son innocently sees light in abject darkness: “Ma, I’m a dragon,” he exclaims when a lack of powered heating grants him icy breath. Fairy tales have clearly influenced the youngster — Alice in Wonderland and the Biblical fable of Samson are invoked — and these stories take on an even grander meaning given the horrendously isolated context within which they are told. Like his previous film, Frank, this newest offering from Lenny Abrahamson champions the power of imagination; such interactions between mother and son offer fleeting moments of relief, further compounded by the duo’s genuine chemistry.
For someone whose only other screen credit is Smurf’s 2, Jacob Tremblay carries a sense of timing that consistently threatens perfection. His actions reverberate with such authenticity, both in instances of thoughtful restraint and in outbursts brought on by his inability to understand his mother’s truth-telling. The young star’s facial performance is particularly strong: Tremblay is always present and never at all disconnected from the film’s envisioned reality. Hey, you ask for one endearing child performance and then two come along at once — Noah Wiseman is similarly effective in The Babadook, another mother-son tale spun via horror. There is also Ellar Coltrane’s turn in the early parts of Boyhood. So that’s three.
Though fun, awards are far from the definitive benchmarks of quality, therefore to speak of them in such terms is frivolous and, truthfully, a bit demeaning. But I would be doing honesty a disservice if I did not declare my readiness to anoint Brie Larson Best Actress by the 10-minute mark. You instantly see Joy’s exhaustion and feel as though you know her story. Larsen maintains a hunched posture and rolls her eyes with such desperation in the wake of Jack’s childish behaviour. Jack is unaware of the somewhat natural order his mother is trying to uphold (baking a birthday cake, exercising on a frequent basis), which only serves to stab at Joy’s sanity a pinch more.
See, the natural order has been flipped and tortured. Jack’s safe haven is a dark wardrobe, a place we normally associate with childhood fear. Such complexity calls for a smart, concise screenplay and Emma Donoghue answers, exploring reality and surreality with magnificent poise. Given Donoghue has adapted her own novel, such a deep understanding is unsurprising. Her use of words is something to behold; Joy quickly corrects “room” to “space” when referring to Room’s lack of physical area — to Jack, the word “room” means the entire universe, an improper definition that completely undermines Joy’s point. Verbal unpackings such as this further fund Joy’s helplessness, but they also embolden her love for Jack. She is willing to adapt to surreality in spite of her mental anguish.
We do get that exhilarating, terrifying escape sequence and it concludes with a powerfully moving embrace between mother and son, a moment of raw emotional discharge worthy, I think, of any motion picture. The aesthetic thereafter reflects Jack’s disorientation in his new world and Abrahamson takes almost as much time to acclimatise as his young protagonist: lights shine with a confusing haze; movements are jerky; noises are amplified beyond proportion. We patiently watch as Jack tests these new waters and, quite incredibly, it’s a delight: considering we are over halfway through by this point, to watch a character complete rudimentary tasks like walking downstairs and for the film to remain engaging is a testament to the Donoghue’s rich writing.
Without expunging any more detail than necessary, a degree of darkness stalks mother and son into the real world. The film goes to a place that less assured outings would almost certainly have avoided and should be commended for doing so. It is worth noting Joan Allen’s beautifully delicate turn as Joy’s mother, Nancy, opposite Larson and Tremblay — there is so much to admire about Abrahamson’s piece but these central performances ultimately hold the key to its success. Forget saccharine, this is a film thoroughly teeming with earned emotion. Room, at times, floored me.
Images copyright (©): A24