Cast: Brie Larson, Jason Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Sean Bridges
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
This review will contain spoilers. It will do so because Room, adapted from Emma Donoghue's critically lauded novel and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, has a plot that's essentially one big spoiler. That's not to say anything that occurs here is necessarily shocking; there are no Shyamalan-esque third act twists or anything, but going in knowing as little as possible about the particulars of the story is crucial to the overall experience. That said, Room is less about what some may see as a gimmicky premise and more to do with the bond between parents and children, exacerbated in this case by the extremity of the scenario. The story involves Ma (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jason Tremblay) trapped inside a shed adjacent to a house owned by Old Nick (Sean Bridges), a man who kidnapped the young woman when she was 17 and has kept the pair in confinement for years. The premise really isn't a gimmick, though, because this kind of thing happens with such alarming regularity that Room often feels closer to a true-life horror film than a mother/son drama. Still, though things never slide into the realm of exploitation, there's a streamlining of character psychology here that marks the picture as something of a missed opportunity.
The reason, perhaps, that the film refuses to go all the way in terms of psychological nuance, is because most of the proceedings are told from the perspective of Jack. Since Ms. Donoghue wrote the script based on her own book, one can sense director Abrahamson struggling to find his own voice while remaining faithful to the source material. Juxtaposing the world of a child--Jack anthropomorphizes his home simply as "Room" and sees it as a magical place--with that of the tragic reality of the situation where Ma is repeatedly raped by Old Nick while the kid sleeps in a closet, is a choice that ultimately backfires. The decision to shape the narrative around Jack does maintain a certain poetic innocence, but it also means that we must endure unbelievably cutesy voiceover narration which ultimately detracts from the visual information Abrahamson dispenses in artful montages. Whenever Jack speaks wistfully about his surroundings and limited, though joyful, knowledge of the world, we already understand these sentiments because the film has given us this experience visually. Beyond that, there are certain missteps in terms of character psychology when it comes to Ma's plan to escape from the confines of the room; leading to a sequence involving a rolled up rug that's logically baffling, though it does work on a certain visceral level.
Larson and Tremblay are believable as mother and son, and their scenes together during the first hour enclosed inside the cramped living quarters are the film's best. The uniqueness of their horrible situation, compounded by the fact that Ma is attempting to gradually reveal the full truth to her son, creates an interesting dynamic that Abrahamson effectively captures through intimate closeups and askew camera angles. Unfortunately, once the pair manage to escape (spoiler alert!), the film tightens it's focus on Jack's point of view and allows Ma, the picture's most interesting character, to drift away onto the periphery. Additionally, Abrahamson fatally overemphasizes the discombobulation of Jack's first glimpses of the outside world through slow motion and a rousing score from post-rock band This Will Destroy You. Such moments would have been far more effective without bombastic music or directorial flourishes, allowing the suspense of the situation to occur organically rather than through aesthetic manipulation.
Once mother and son are reintroduced to society, Room becomes a kind of Stockholm Situation family drama where Ma becomes moody and detached while Jack learns how to join the land of the living. The film's most profound idea is that the mother may in fact be selfish for not giving up her son for adoption, keeping him around in order to effectively save herself, but the film only hints at such distressing impulses. The fact that Larson delivers a raw, wounded, and vanity-free performance here is somewhat muted by the fact that the filmmakers choose to nearly abandon her perspective from the story. This is all intentional, of course. Room is really about the unshakable bond between mother and child in which the child lifts the jaded, broken adult out of the darkness by sheer force of expressive optimism. Larson imbues her character with both a fierce motherly instinct as well as a sense of depression that a large section of her life has been stolen away, and the scenes where she rages against her parents (a fine Joan Allen and underused William H. Macy) in the second half are searing in their directness. But the focus keeps shifting back to Jack, with his precocious platitudes overshadowing unspeakable trauma. Since Ma is left to suffer mostly offscreen, the serious damage psychologically and physically she's endured is prescribed in afterthought doses; such as a tonally awkward sequence where she's interviewed on live TV.
Mostly, Room sticks to the child's point of view and argues that Jack, despite his peculiar growing up narrative, is mostly unharmed by the experience. This is hammered home in a rather unfortunate coda where past ghosts are visited, reckoned with, and ultimately jettisoned in lieu of "moving forward." With a conceit this atypical and subject matter so grim, it's a miracle the film works at all and most of this is due to Larson. Whenever she's onscreen, the emotional complexity and psychological insight lacking from the script is internalized and made palpable through her pure acting talent. Ultimately, the film would have been richer and possibly more troubling, had it been about Ma.