Of the Academy Award nominees out and about this season, Brooklyn and Room are the two that are fighting against the bigger tent-pole projects that the studios are hedging their bets on, solidified with big budgets, big names attached, and saucy subject matter that grabs attention easily. The smaller projects have more to prove with tighter stories, up-and-coming talent, and much less promotional material compared to studio powerhouses such as The Big Short and The Revenant. This is not to say “big studios are undeserving”, but indie movies have to struggle in order to earn their own awards and accolades.
Alongside Brooklyn, Room is seemingly the movie to beat when it comes to the Best Actress race. With Room, the film concerns Jack, played with hesitant wonder by the young Jacob Tremblay, and his “Ma” (Brie Larson), who live in “Room”, a very small enclosure somewhere on the property of their guardian “Old Nick”. Jack has just turned 5 and celebrates with exercise and a birthday cake. Unbeknownst to Jack, “Ma” is not a willing resident of Old Nick. She was kidnapped by Nick over 7 years before, who impregnated her with Jack. The only thing that keeps Ma, whose real name is Joy, around is her undying love for her child. Since Nick has fortified the garden shed where they are kept with a special pair of doors that only open when Nick is around, Joy comes clean to Jack about the world that lies outside the shed where they are trapped. Jack, who has only known the “Room” all his life, doesn’t believe her and “wants to hear a different story”.
[(SPOILERS AHEAD)] In a last-ditch effort to escape, Joy comes up with a dangerous plan to fake Jack’s death and when Nick takes the boy’s body out, Jack can find the authorities to help. By the luck of a careful pedestrian, the effort succeeds, and after a brief stint in the hospital, the two are deposited at Joy’s mother’s house where they are descended upon by journalists. The remainder of the film deals with Joy and Jack coming to terms with life outside of the “Room”, and how they both deal with the new outside forces that neither of them had any intention of attracting. [(SPOILERS END)]
Like plenty of the other nominees, the key strength of the movie is in the performances rather than Lenny Abrahamson’s direction or storyline. Frankly, the story is glorified Lifetime channel movie material, literally ripped-from-the-headlines, as Emma Donoghue’s seminal book that she adapted herself for the screen was based on a lurid case of kidnapping that’s actually even more disturbing than the novel and movie are.
The director’s previous film was the delightfully offbeat musical comedy Frank about a band led by the eccentric titular character, dressed in a paper-mâché mask/head. In jumping to hard-hitting drama, Mr. Abrahamson is most certainly attempting to broadcast a talent for handling all types of movies, comic and dramatic. Granted, this is his 5th feature film, according to Wikipedia.
Brie Larson is a pillar of resilience in Room. Having done her time in the romantic comedies and bit parts in Big Hollywood movies, she has been biding her time, waiting for something to grab and make her own. And with 2013’s indie darling Short Term 12 and Room, she has made her presence known to the Hollywood establishment at large. That being said, she has a genre-spanning career, having appeared alongside Amy Schumer last year in Trainwreck, as a smoldering ex in Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and with Ma Newsome under her belt, she’s made it clear her acting prowess is something to behold.
Ma is memorable because of her balance of strength and vulnerability. Every scene is a balancing act along the lines of her keeping her mind sharp and being there for little Jack. Her skin reflects the pallor of one who has had no view of the sun for years, her eyes water constantly, but she keeps a smile on to ensure her son’s safe rearing and both of their survivals. In her dulled eyes are the personality of a woman near the breaking point, risking it all on a last ditch attempt for survival. Like Hugh Glass in The Revenant, she has moments where she breaks, but it is brief and never the real focus of the story, since at the heart, this is Jack’s tale.
Jacob Tremblay is a marvel as Jack, the precocious, yet exploratory child that’s yet to experience the world and its grand offerings. Many critics have complained of the irritating shrillness given by Jack at times, and those people obviously have no idea how children actually act out. Children are not just packages of smiles and laughs, not properly brought up children anyway. There is variance in their moods and behaviors. much like adults, but their emotions have more extreme poles of expression. And Tremblay nails the portrayal of a boy who, while possibly stunted, is still learning about the world and willing to explore, with his Ma of course.
The film is not without detracting elements. The first half of the film is a closed off thriller, and the second half talky drama about feelings and experiences. These two halves don’t mesh very well as a whole product, and it’s not the fault of the director or the writer. It just feels off, and they tried to make it work. The best way I can explain it is you feel like you’re connected to these characters for the first half by umbilical, but after that passes, that connection is weakened due to the decrease in stakes. But on the bright side, Abrahamson has assembled a fine cast for support, including character actors Joan Allen and William H. Macy as Joy’s parents, worried beyond sick over the years of her imprisonment. Orphan Black cast member Tom McCamus adds solid support as Leo, Joan Allen’s new husband after separating from Joy’s father, finding moments to connect with young Jack over food and dogs.
To conclude, Room is a flawed film anchored by 2 stellar lead performances and a solid cast and script. While it won’t remain revered as a classic example of 2015 filmmaking, it is certainly worth a watch.