9 out of 10
Brie Larson as Joy/Ma
Directed by Lenny Abramson
(Note: There may be minor SPOILERS in this review in terms of the plot.)
Kidnapped at the age of 17, a young woman (Brie Larson) has been raising her five-year-old son Jack (Jake Tremblay) in the garden shed where they’re kept by their kidnapper. For his entire life, that room is the only world Jack has known, so when his mother finally plans their escape, Jack is thrust into a world he’s never experienced while his mother has to deal with other repercussions of her decision.
The idea of a movie about a mother and a son trapped in a garden shed might not sound like the most inspiring subject matter for a film, but Room, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own novel of the same name, does a lot with that simple premise and what happens when people trapped in a situation beyond their control have a chance to escape it. Sure, there’s an obvious analogy there, but as we’ve seen far too many times, this kind of thing has happened in real life, because there are a lot of truly sick people out there.
It’s hard to talk about Room without spoiling some of the emotional beats that add to why it’s such a special film, so I’ll do my best to not ruin that enjoyment, but it starts out simply enough as we’re introduced to the two main characters and “room.” Jack has just turned five and with hair as long as his mother’s, he runs around “room” in his underwear trying to keep himself entertained any way he can. For years, his mother has kept Jack in the dark about their situation, hiding him in the wardrobe whenever “Old Nick” comes in to visit her. Now that he’s five, she feels it’s time to be honest with him about the fact that there’s an unseen world outside room and not just what he sees on television. The boy, who has readily accepted their simple life, doesn’t quite understand, especially when she decides it’s time to escape from their captor.
The first half of Room offers a lot of tension in how Ma and Jack interact with “Old Nick,” but that escalates during Jack’s attempted escape, which might be 20 minutes of the finest cinema you’re likely to see this year, perfectly capturing what it must feel like for young Jack to see the sky and trees and other things for the very first time.
Comparisons can probably be made between this and something like The Lovely Bones, another novel and film that takes a horrendous incident and creates escapist fantasy from it, and Donohue’s adaptation of her own material still feels very literary in its translation. (In other words, I probably would have figured this was based on a book even if I didn’t know that beforehand.)
While Brie Larson gives another amazing dramatic performance on par with her turn in Short Term 12, much of the movie she spends allowing young Jacob Tremblay to steal much of the scenes, at least until the second half of the film. After she returns home, the focus shirts more to Joy coming to term with her decision to keep Jack confined in that horrible situation for so long before trying to escape, as well as dealing with how her relationship with her parents has changed during her absence. There’s so much about Joy’s past before being kidnapped that we don’t know and without bringing things up outright, Larson is able to convey a sense of her family’s history.
But then you have Tremblay’s performance, which is so naturalistic and it feels so real with his amazingly expressive face really conveying what Jack must be feeling throughout the story. Room isn’t Tremblay’s first role, but when you talk about an actor so young being able to carry a film like this, you can only imagine Tremblay will go onto greatness. It almost gets to the point where experienced actors like Joan Allen and William H. Macy (playing her parents) are taking a backseat and are quickly forgotten, although Tom McCanus has a number of great scenes with Tremblay as Leo, the man whose house they stay at after escaping.
More than anything, Room is an amazing achievement for director Lenny Abramson, whose last film Frank, starring Michael Fassebender, was a very different and eclectic film that wasn’t quite as effective. With Room, he has found material that allows him to show off his ability to get simple but beautifully-rounded performances out of established dramatic actors as well as Tremblay and create something that keeps you invested despite the minimalistic confided settings.
The music by Stephen Rennicks is a major contribution, because it’s used sparingly enough in the room scenes that when Jack escapes into the outside world, it can burst into the most gorgeous score that perfectly embellishes Abramson’s camera techniques used to put the viewer into Jack’s head.
The Bottom Line:
Room is a glorious experience that transcends its simple dramatic premise. It’s one of the best and most effective films of the year, and you would have to be fairly heartless not to be moved by it.