Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Room (****)

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson


When Room surprised many by winning the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival - besting what many saw as the easy favorite, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight - it was confirmed that it was more than just your garden variety best-seller adaptation. The film is based on a novel by Emma Donoghue, and she also wrote the screenplay. There was a time when novelists were usually considered the worst candidates to adapt their own work, but after Stephen Chbosky's film take on his Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012, last year's Gone Girl and now this year's Room, that line of thinking should change. Donoghue's script and Lenny Abrahamson's direction of it is an emotionally devastating experience, a tale of the fragility of the human spirit. At times glaring, and at other times sweet, the film watches over a vast landscape of human experience and serves it all to you within a deceptively simple tale of tragedy and survival. The film is led by a couple of powerhouse performances, one from Brie Larson and the other from the fresh-faced Jacob Tremblay, a nine-year-old who's playing even younger. Their mother-son relationship is the crux of the film's narrative, and the key to what makes Room work so well. Their performances are phenomenal, and set the stage for what Donoghue and Abrahamson are bringing to the table: a shattering maternal tale about grasping for salvation in a desperate situation.

The film is told through the perspective of five-year-old Jack (Tremblay), a curious boy with long, wavy dark hair who's lived his entire life with his mother Joy (Larson) in "Room". As has been explained to him, Room is the entire world, outside is only outer space. They have a bed, a sink, a toilet, a bathtub, a television and a wardrobe. At night, Jack is left to sleep in the wardrobe when they're visited by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) who brings them their needed food and clothes, before going to bed with Joy out of Jack's sight. Jack's life with his mother seems normal because that is his reality; he has the same hangups and asks the same question as any five-year-old would. He doesn't question the strangeness of their living situation. He doesn't comprehend that the world could be more than just four walls. The truth is that Joy was kidnapped by Old Nick when she was seventeen, and has been forced to live in the garden shed in his backyard for seven years. The door is held by an electronic lock which only Nick knows the code to open. The one bright spot of Joy's hopeless situation is the arrival of a son, Jack, and she refuses to let him even see or speak to Nick, or interact with him in any way. But Jack is getting too old to keep the fantasy alive. The young boy's curiosity is growing further and further, and it's becoming more difficult for Joy to explain their sobering reality. This is why Joy decides to devise a plan to get them out or, at the very least, get Jack out safely.

The movie is directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who also did last year's Frank, which was a fascinating concept that never really managed to turn into a truly interesting movie (it's saved mostly by a great performance by Michael Fassbender). What Abrahamson constructs in the first half of Room, which takes place entirely in the garden shed is a tremendous piece of filmmaking. He never tries to make the space claustrophobic, because that's not how Jack sees it. The films is framed and cut beautifully, allowing the audience to see how this room can come to stand for the entire world, at least in the eyes of a young boy. After a few failures, Joy and Jack hatch what is finally a successful plan to get out of room. This involves Jack being rolled up in a rug then wiggling out in the back of Old Nick's truck before running for the first person he sees. This entire sequence, capturing Jack's revelation of the outside world is the most exhilarating thing I've seen in a movie this year. Abrahamson's remarkable understanding of the human sense, his ability to translate Jack's wonderment and fear, creates a tower of tension as Jack does his best to escape the surprisingly dim Old Nick. Everything leading up to this had been a single set piece, a few pieces of furniture within a shed. Abrahamson makes the transition count, taking the words of Donoghue's script (her novel is also completely from Jack's point-of-view) and truly bringing it to life.

Room's second half is a much more traditional domestic drama, but it's the moment when the pain of Joy's experience comes to forefront. After his escape, Jack is able to help police track down his mother, and they're both finally free. Joy is reunited with her own mother, Nancy (Joan Allen), as well as her father, Robert (William H. Macy). Jack's introduction to the world is hurried and frantic, he's surrounded by doctors and grandparents eager to meet him, all while trying to learn the basic concepts of showers and staircases. Joy returns to her childhood home, where she learns that Nancy and Robert have split up, and that an old family friend, Leo (Tom McCamus), is now her stepfather. As Jack tries to comprehend his new, expanded universe, Joy finds her newfound freedom surprisingly difficult to cope with. The wretchedness of life in a garden shed does not simply disappear upon escape. Media attention and the ongoing police search to track down "Old Nick" does little to calm her down. Casting the immensely talented Brie Larson in the role of Joy is brilliant, and it's a character much more suited to her strengths than whatever she was supposed to be doing in Trainwreck earlier this year. The fracturing steel of Joy in the first half of the film versus the crumbling debris in the second showcases Larson's ability to portray a complex variety of emotions within a single character. Room cements her position alongside Carey Mulligan and Jennifer Lawrence as the best young actresses working today; those willing not only to search out good roles, but play them beautifully.

I found myself completely drained by the end of Room. It's palpable grief and strong performances will leave you with nothing left but raw feelings. It's hard to really have an objective opinion on a movie experience like this, with a film so adept at reaching into the audience's psyche, but it doesn't feel manipulative in the classic Hollywood movie sense. The purity of this film's melodrama separates it from, say, Clint Eastwood's Changeling, another film about a mother desperately trying to protect her son. That's probably not the fairest comparison, but it makes my point: it's Room's brilliant direction and screenplay that earns it's audience's emotions, and its performances bring it home. To get a performance as good as Tremblay's here is otherworldly. Playing alongside the exceptional Larson can provide guidance, but Tremblay does hold his own and is often the best actor in a given scene. The acting of children is always difficult to gauge - how could Tremblay possibly conceive of all the psychological hazards that Jack has been through? - but Abrahamson guides him aptly. If Quvenzhan√© Wallis can get an Oscar nomination for her incredible work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, I'm not sure why the same shouldn't be considered for Tremblay here. Room is a total cinematic achievement, one of the best films of the year and one so effective as to leave its audience completely whitewashed by its surging heart. There's no better movie to watch in the theater right now.

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