Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Room’ is the way the filmmaker was able to take material that could have so easily been sensationalistic and transform it into something subtle and human. It’s a tabloid tale pitched as a touchingly small drama and boasts what might finally be the breakout role of Brie Larson’s ever-promising career.
Make no mistake, this isn’t an easy watch. However, it’s also not merely the shock and misery show that this same story could have been in another director’s hands.
‘Room’ is told from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy named Jack (Jacob Tremblay). The room that the title refers to is the entire world he’s ever known. You see, his mother (Larson) was kidnapped at 17 at held captive by a disgusting man known only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who is secretly Jack’s father. Despite those horrors that the audience is made all too aware of, the film has an almost wistful quality in these early sequences thanks to being told through the child’s imaginative perspective. It’s all a game to him, and the way his Ma has shielded her young son from reality ensures that he’s unaware of anything being wrong. He even thinks that the television that is their only window to the outside world shows a fantasyland of dreams. Of course, reality creeps in for viewers every time the camera pans away from the playful child to the battered mother.
Eventually, Ma plots an escape. To do so, she has to heartbreakingly peel back her blanket of lies and make her son run out to the world to find help. Thankfully, it works. The rest of the film plays out as the two protagonists struggle to reintegrate themselves into the world with the help of Ma’s family (Joan Allen, Tom McCamus and William H. Macy).
Obviously, that’s all pretty tough stuff, yet somehow Abrahamson has crafted a film that’s warm and even inspiring. It’s not a tale of a victim, but one of survival. While none of the ugly truths are ignored, they aren’t dwelled on or viewed as insurmountable obstacles. Instead, the horrors of ‘Room’ are the springboard for growth and strength.
That might sound a little mushy, and at times the movie certainly is, yet it overcomes that obstacle through a clever use of perspective. As with the successful novel by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay), the whole story unfolds through the eyes of an innocent and often blissfully unaware child. In the first half of the film, that adds a layer of fantasy that prevents reality from becoming overwhelming. In the second half, that keeps the audience in the corner or on the outside of big emotional scenes that would drift into melodrama in the sleazy TV movie version of this sort of story. It also makes the protagonist the most complicated character and erases any sense of ambiguity over how to feel about his unfortunate parentage. He’s an innocent and a hero rather than a victim.
Young Jacob Tremblay is absolutely remarkable in the central role, beautifully naturalistic and completely unencumbered by any child actor theatrics. It likely helped that the character’s misunderstanding of his circumstance meant that the young actor didn’t have to deal with the ickiest and darkest aspects of the story. Either way, the kid is a major find and talent.
The veteran supporting players like Allen and Macy are all as strong as expected in limited roles, but the movie really belongs to Larson. It’s a heartbreaking and devastating performance that she dives into without overstating or overplaying a thing. She’s strong yet desperate, scarred yet hopeful. Above all else, she has to carry the weight of the harshest emotional aspects of the tale, which she does with ease. ‘Room’ will likely be a major movie in her career, and her name will come up quite a bit when awards season rolls out its endless red carpets.
For the most part, Abrahamson wisely lets the actors take center stage and makes his movie about people and performance. He does an impressive job of finding fresh staging and composition in the claustrophobic first half of the film. Even if he leans a little too hard on camera tricks to capture Jack’s first glimpses of a larger world, it’s never overwrought. Yes, there are times when the film gets a little soapy and the score often drifts too far into manipulation. Overall, however, it’s difficult not to be impressed by what Abrahamson and company were able to accomplish.
‘Room’ was a pleasant surprise of the fall film festival circuit, proving to be a far better achievement than anyone could have expected. It deserves the praise it’s received, but hopefully the hype won’t kill it for audiences who go in expecting something special. ‘Room’ is not a perfect or a pleasant movie, but it’s a powerful one well worth experiencing.