Thursday, December 10, 2015

Movie Review: "Room" (2015)

© A24

With the announcement of the Golden Globe nominations this morning, I couldn't resist expediting my review for the most unexpectedly gripping film of the year. Room tackles the troubling and sinking terror of a girl kidnapped and held in tenured captivity, all through the eyes of a child as he grows up shielded from the truths that could tear his small—very small—world apart. Author Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel and manages to impart hope, beauty, and wonder in a story that, at its core, should be devoid of all three. No other film this year creates a scope this small paired with themes so expansive.

It's been seven years since Joy (Brie Larson), now 24-years-old, was kidnapped not far from her suburban home. In the years since her disappearance, she has spent every moment locked inside a soundproof shed, with only a small skylight and antiquated TV giving her a glimpse of the outside. But she's not alone. On this day, the start of the film, it is her son Jack's 5th birthday. Jack (played by the remarkable Jacob Tremblay) has never known life outside of Room, which he believes is the entire world. Only magic, all the things inside of TV, exist outside Room. Joy shields their imprisonment aggressively from Jack, who is, despite everything spiraling around him, is a well-adjusted, happy child. It is his honest and childish narration that glosses the film with that wondrous sheen of optimism.

The mere existence of Jack is troubling. We don't need to see the abuse to understand the trauma that Joy has experienced—and sadly, now accepts as an every day occurrence. This hostile place, Room, isn't beautiful, and it isn't safe. It is ugly and dirty and dark and hopeless... but don't try telling Jack that. There's nothing else he could ever need other than the things Room has to offer, having his doting mother by his side, but there are hints of this changing, demands that there be more, even if Jack could never conceive of what that means. This informs much of Joy's actions that follow as she comes to terms with what must be done to keep her son safe.

Jacob Tremblay's performance feels impossible. How can a child this young so convincingly convey confusion and disbelief about the existence of a world he's only meant to pretend he didn't know existed? It's gut-wrenching and transcendent. In likely the film's most powerful scene, Joy (or "Ma" as she's credited, another indication of whose perspective we're really sharing) tries to reveal to Jack the truth about what lies beyond the walls of Room. "Nothing, only magic," Jack affirms. "No," Joy insists. "There are trees, and dogs, and other people." He doesn't believe it. Not that he won't—he can't. How could he? Instead, he's angry and scared. Writer Donoghue establishes this mental conundrum with such richness that watching Jack's mind rip open to the possibilities of trees and dogs and snow edges on painful, and Tremblay masters these emotions with a level of skill most adult actors could never command.

Tremblay might be the heart of this film, but it's Larson who we can't stop watching. Jack's thoughts and dreams and happiness sing in our ears, but Joy's insurmountable depression, ebbing and flowing in waves that literally knock her down for days and days, is soul-crushing. Larson plays Joy with strength and momentum one moment, and then broken hopelessness the next. Jack doesn't understand it, but he's used to it and doesn't know it's bad. For most of us, the depths of her horror is something we can never understand—but Larson does her damnedest to make us. We're introduced to her realities, filtered through Jack's eyes, but we know better. We know what's happening when their captor, referred to only as Old Nick, comes in the night. The casual nonchalance of his conversations with Joy hold so much more weight to us than they do for Jack, and it leaves a bad taste in our mouths and a pit in our stomachs.

The shocking thing about Room is that it's completely devoid of melodrama; there is no fuss or exaggeration here. It's disgusting and inspiring in its realness. And while the trailer for the film suggests very little time is spent in Room before Joy and Jack are rescued (I'm taking a risk with the confidence I'm not spoiling anything here), this is far from the truth. Room's prison feels impenetrable, and director Lenny Abrahamson does not make freedom seem easy. There is a whole second half of this film that feels very different from the first, but it's in no way less impactful. Freedom contains its own dangers, for which Joy is not immune and Jack is not prepared. Listening to Jack narrate and explore every curiosity lifts us out of the weight of Room.

What sets Room apart is its beauty in the face of unspeakable horror, with performances that honor and respect that this story—however separated from the majority of our lives—mirrors someone else's truth, their nightmare. Awards are imminent, for acting and screenplay alike. See Room immediately, and expect to walk out with a heavy heart and hopeful tears.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

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