Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson.
Written by: Emma Donoghue based on her novel.
Starring: Brie Larson (Ma), Jacob Tremblay (Jack), Joan Allen (Nancy), Sean Bridgers (Old Nick), William H. Macy (Robert), Tom McCamus (Leo), Wendy Crewson (Talk Show Hostess).
It’s harder in film than it is in literature to completely tell a story from inside one person’s point of view. It’s easy in literature – the author simply writes in the first person, and the reader immediately “gets it”, and also realizes that the story being told isn’t necessarily the objective truth, but rather one person’s version of the truth – and that person could either be lying, deluding themselves or simply not have all the necessary information. In film though, because the audience can see with their own eyes what is happening, we assume that everything we are seeing is the objective truth, no matter what, and so it’s harder for a film to truly put you inside of someone else’s head. Emma Donoghue’s novel Room was brilliant – told entirely from the point of view of a 5 year old boy named Jack, who is trapped in a shed with Ma, who has done everything she can to make their lives seem normal. Occasionally Old Nick shows up – and Jack knows he is to stay in the wardrobe when he does. Old Nick brings them things like food that they need – and Jack hears the grunting and the squeaking of the bed springs that we understand, that he cannot. Jack is as happy as a 5 year old in this situation can be – so it’s traumatizing when Ma tells him they need to play a game that will get Jack out of Room – and perhaps even more traumatizing once he is out in the world. Donoghue wrote the screenplay for Room – and Lenny Abrahamson directed it – and one of the most remarkable things about the movie is how it maintains Jack’s point of view throughout the movie – how it really did place the audience inside his head, and sees the world as he sees it. It’s one of the many accomplishments of the movie.
The film stars Brie Larson as Ma – and it truly is one of the best performances of the year. She is a woman who is fighting off depression, who is at the end of her rope, and puts all of her focus and energy on protecting to her – which is the one thing that is keeping her sane. The first half of the movie – set entirely in Room – is tense, as she tries everything she can to give Jack a “normal” childhood – lying to him about what is outside of Room (outer space), and who Old Nick is (someone who gets things with magic), and who the people on TV are (flat people from far away). She is protecting him from the truth of course – making things seem normal, turning things into toys and games (including afternoon yelling time, which is useless since Room is soundproof, but they try anyway). Without giving too much away, both Ma and Jack eventually do get out of Room, and I imagine most movies would end – with a happily ever after moment of mother and child triumphing over adversity. It’s simpler, cleaner that way. But that isn’t what Room does – it follows the pair of them over a period of time after they get out. Both are in some ways damaged – Ma more than Jack – and struggle with fitting in with the world.
Larson is, as mentioned earlier, brilliant as Ma – the woman who clearly cracking up, and not wanting Jack to notice. She has been building to a performance like this for a while now – her great work in Short Term 12 in particular – and she makes the most of it. But the whole movie would be in danger if the role of Jack wasn’t well cast – but luckily Jacob Tremblay delivers one of the great child actor performances in cinema history – right up there with Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon and Anna Paquin in The Piano. It’s a remarkably subtle performance (no doubt some skillful directing played a role here), that lets us into Jack’s mind as he looks at all the strange stuff he has never seen before, and starts to slowly bond with people other than Ma. Joan Allen is wonderful as well as Ma’s mother, who calmly and patiently helps Jack come out of his shell a little bit more (Tom McCamus is fine too as her husband – who knows how to talk to children).
As dark of a film as Room is – calling to mind any number of real life horrors similar to what happens here, and not shying away from their lasting impact, it does end up as a rather hopeful film. The final scene, again just mother and child, sees Room for what it always was, and in doing so, the power it has over them dissipates. It’s one of the many moments in the film that could be seen as trying to milk tears from the audience – but in this case, Room earns those tears (and yes, I cried, but then I’m a big softie) – because the film feels honest. Room is a remarkable achievement for all involved – a giant leap forward for Abrahamson (I liked both What Richard Did and Frank – but they are nowhere near as good as this), a wonderful screenwriting debut for Donoghue, who proved (like Gillian Flynn did last year with Gone Girl) that she was the right choice to adapt her own book, and for Larson and Tremblay, who are remarkable together. This is one of the best films of the year.