A film review by Craig J. Koban November 22, 2015

RANK: 3

ROOM jjjj
 

2015, R, 118 mins.

 

Brie Larson as Ma  /  Jacob Tremblay as Jack  /  William H. Macy as Grandpa  /  Joan Allen as Grandma  /  Sean Bridgers as Old Nick  /  Megan Park as Laura  /  Tom McCamus as Leo

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson  /  Written by Emma Donoghue, based on her book

ROOM is one of the most heartbreakingly sad, yet paradoxically uplifting films that I’ve ever seen.  

On a basic level, Lenny Abrahamson’s harrowing human survival drama – adapted from the Emma Donoghue novel of the same name – tells the simple story of a young mother and son that try to acclimatize themselves to the outside world after being locked up by a psychopath for several years of forced captivity.  Not only is ROOM an uncommonly terrifying tale of gritty perseverance when facing insurmountable mental and physical odds, but it’s also a soulful and deeply poignant celebration of the bond between mother and child, and one that no outside force can inherently sever.  There are very few films that I’ve seen in my eleven years as a critic that have legitimately driven me to tears…but ROOM is one of them. 

The overall film is structured almost like an intimate two act play.  The first half of ROOM is handled on the level of a suspense laced escape-from-captivity thriller, during which time the tension is so palpable that the film becomes almost intolerable to watch.  The second half of the film deals with the aftermath of the mother and son’s imprisonment, during which time they have to seek out a more ethereal form of freedom: Both must now deal with the emotional prison that they find themselves in as they desperately try to relate to and live in a outside world that’s altogether foreign to them.  The central brilliance of ROOM is how it poses so many fundamental questions on what defines parenthood and a healthy upbringing.  Moreover, how can children – even when placed in nightmarish social scenarios for the first several years of their lives – come out of such situations with a remarkable resiliency?  ROOM never takes the easy path in dealing with such queries; it places an inordinate amount of trust in viewers answer them on their own. 

 

 

ROOM doesn’t give viewers a lot of expository back-story, which works sensationally for how well it gives the film’s premise a stark and shocking immediacy.  Slowly, but surely, we begin to learn the basic particulars of the main characters and their predicament.  Ma (a career defining, Oscar worthy turn by Brie Larson) initially appears as a fairly well adjusted and caring mother to her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay, in one of the most astonishingly authentic child performances ever captured on screen).  Unfortunately, the more details that emerge regarding their living situation the more horrifying it becomes.  In essence, Ma and Jack are essentially confined to a 10 foot by 10 foot shed with no windows (sans a small one at the roof of the structure, well out of reach) and a heavily sealed door that’s accessible in or out via a combination lock.  Ma has not seen the world outside of the shed since before Jack was born.  Jack...has never seen the outside world. 

It gets worse.  Their jailor, so to speak, is a barbaric predatory that they refer to as Old Nick (Sean Bridges), whom appears every so often to provide for them the most basic necessities of life, like food, medication, clothes, and so forth.  He frequently rapes Ma as well.  How did she end up in such a tortuous relationship with this sadist?  Through subtle dialogue exchanges with her son we learn bits and pieces: She was abducted by him years ago (when she was trying to offer him assistance that she believed, at the time, he needed) and has spent every waking moment since in the shed.  Her only connection to the outside world is the skylight that’s above her head and the archaic TV set that apparently plays out-of-date programs.  Ma eventually became pregnant via Old Nick, but out of sheer will and determination, decided to make the most out of her hellish circumstances and raise Jack as well as she could.  Miraculously, Jack’s entire perception of the world around him has been cultivated by living in the shed.  He’s never seen anything from the natural world with his own eyes beyond it…not even trees.  

Ma hits a breaking point.  She decides that they must find a manner of escaping, but explaining the particulars of their current “reality” to Jack proves to be a challenge.  After some aggressive coaxing and a fiendishly inventive plan, Ma and Jack secure their freedom from Old Nick.  They must now come face to face with a family that has long since given up hope of their survival.  Ma’s parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) take them in to help with their readjustment back into the world (and to protect them from the media that wants to make Ma’s stunning story front page headlines).  Things are not nearly as rosy for Ma and Jack on the “outside” as they hoped.  Ma’s dad has difficulty dealing with a grandson that’s the product of rape.  Jack has problems with trusting new people alongside adjusting to the harsh rigors of being outdoors for the first time in his life.  Ma has issues in moving on beyond her ordeal, which is made all the more difficult seeing as her son has adjusted much better than she has…and for the first time in her life he seems to be experiencing some semblance of independence apart from her.  

As positively gut-wrenching as ROOM is during its first half, the film almost becomes as emotionally taxing during the aftermath stages of Joy and Jack’s forced captivity.  Ultimately, ROOM is not so much about their captivity as it is about their life beyond it.  Part of the strange beauty of the film is how mother and son managed to craft a life of relative normalcy (as much as they could afford to) within their four walled and tiny “room” based solely on their mutual and unwavering love expressed to each other for all of those years.  Even though Ma and Jack were never free in the literal sense for all those years, their cerebral freedom was in the way their formed a family unit while imprisoned.  Ma, oddly enough, develops even more mental instability while on the outside and back home with her own parents.  Now free and with a whole world to explore, young Jack, for the first time ever, is able to cut his emotional umbilical cord from his mother and explore things apart from her.  Part of Ma’s inability to cope with her new surroundings is how she’s incapable of dealing with separation from the boy she’s spent every second of her last five years with.  Being apart from Jack becomes almost as unbearable for Ma as being trapped in that shed.  Her troubled mindset has become a newfound and unwanted prison for her. 

Brie Larson has given tremendous performances in the past (most recently in the very underrated and little seen SHORT TERM 12), but nothing on her past resume hints at the depths she goes to here to play Ma.  Not only must she relay a deeply maternal woman that gets by on pure instinct and the strength of her incredible resiliency alone, but she also has to portray Ma as a woman fundamentally damaged by her experiences that robbed her of most of her adolescent and young adult life.  There has simply not been a more raw and impassioned performance by an actress in 2015.  Larson is magnificently paired with Jacob Tremblay, an incalculably strong young actor that arguably has the trickiest performance in the film to pull off.  He has to evoke a child of great naiveté about the outside world around him while simultaneously showing Jack as a wide-eyed, positive minded, and plucky kid that’s made a mostly normal life out of being trapped in a small room for years.  When he learns the truth of his experience – and to witness Tremblay do a complete about-face with his performance and how he dials into the character – is monumentally distressing, but astounding at the same time.  Very few child actors are as unforced and credible in movies as much as Tremblay is here.

I cowered in my theater seat multiple times and watched ROOM through my fingertips.  The film’s early stages are more systematically frightening than a handful of recent horror films that I’ve endured.  Beyond the film’s terror-inducing premise, it really becomes an endlessly tender one of family love and what it truly means to grow up apart from your parent and stake a claim for yourself.  In a peculiar manner, ROOM reminded me considerably of THE ROAD, the 2009 post-apocalyptic drama that also centered on the microcosm of the impenetrable link between parent and child while dealing with the dreadful daily conditions of trying to stay alive.  Both films are about people finding the last vestiges of inner fortitude when all hope is apparently lost.  ROOM is obviously a more economical film, but as a work of searing drama it’s as brutally honest and thoughtfully challenging with its subject matter as any film that’s out there.  It’s a film that will stay with for an awfully long time. 

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