Jack is upset that his birthday cake doesn’t have candles on it. Jack’s mother Joy has much more to be upset about on this day, which marks five years since her son was born in this dim garden shed. But at least she’s not alone anymore, as she was for the two years prior to his birth. Two years of near solitude following her kidnapping by a psychopath who continues to bring her food, provide her heat and cable, and rape her constantly. For seven years this hell has been Joy’s life, and she’s almost completely given up on the idea of ever seeing the outside world again (though she teaches her son to scream as loud as possible just in case). She’s also taught Jack that nothing exists beyond the room, at first to protect him from the dark reality of their situation but maybe now because she doesn’t want to disappoint him with knowledge of a world he’ll probably never experience. And so, despite the supreme horrors of their lives, Jack’s only frustration is that he doesn’t get candles on his cake this year.
A warm, bold illustration of the bond between parent and child, Room is both physically and emotionally engaging on a level I don’t think I’ve ever experienced. The screenplay by Emma Donoghue (who authored the novel the film is adapted from) is so subtle that I didn’t realize how engaged I was (or that I was engaged at all) until I suddenly and literally found myself on the edge of my seat and the theater melted away. The precision in the writing is extraordinary in a way that can’t possibly be matched by the direction from Lenny Abrahamson (Frank). Abrahamson’s work here can only be described as intimate, making great use of close ups and natural makeup. Of special note is his ability to wring a huge variety of interesting, striking shots out of the one room. It’s just a shame (one I’m very willing to overlook) that he makes a few questionable choices with regards to how much to show and when, especially at the movie’s most pivotal visual moment.
The synergy between Abrahamson’s close-quartered direction, Donoghue’s searing script and the brilliant acting (I’ll get to that soon) forms a handful of moments I can only rightly describe as transcendent, providing in its depiction of love, regret, frustration and freedom real potential for personal transformation. More than any movie I’ve seen this year, more than most I’ve seen in my life, Room has etched a permanent mark into how I see the world. It hasn’t left me (or maybe I haven’t left it), but that’s kind of the point. At its core, the movie is about the irreversible impressions left on us by events outside our control, physical or mental, debilitating or empowering. Once Joy decides to explain the real world to Jack early on, Jack can suddenly never return to the same level of innocence or peace of mind he had, yet a whole world of wonderful possibilities opens up. A concept so bleak is turned life-affirming through a vivid demonstration of the power of interpersonal bonds to triumph over traumatic scars of the body and mind, and the importance of cherishing those scars which further evoke those bonds.
No amount of clever screenwriting and beautiful cinematography would be enough to sell the profound, dynamic relationship between Jack and Joy without actors that feel like a true mother and son. Luckily, Brie Larson shines as Joy, demonstrating incredible range that won’t be new to anyone who’s seen her in indie wonder Short Term 12 (which shares more than a few thematic similarities), but will definitely serve as a shock to most audiences, who would only recognize her from equally-endearing Hollywood turns in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and 21 Jump Street. Her ability to switch from loving mother to damaged daughter (she comes from a family too, after all) and to put audiences inside of her headspace should shoot her straight into awards consideration in a way that Short Term 12 was oddly unable to accomplish.
It’s Jacob Trambley as Jack who is the real revelation here, who deserves to be talked about in awards circles just as sincerely as Larson. Using a child in a plot so dismal could be seen as a manipulative gimmick if not for Trambley turning in one of the all-time great performances for a child of his age. Eight at the time of shooting, the boy conveys a natural sense of wonder and confusion that shows through even in the many scenes where he observes quietly. His subtle range of facial expressions says more in his silence than any amount of forced child-like dialogue could. Luckily, the dialogue he is given is believable and often comedic in a ‘kids say the darndest things’ type of way, allowing a much-needed dose of humor to seep down into the dreary proceedings and wash away much of the gloom. I’d like to see him go face to face against Michael Fassbender’s Steve Jobs at the Oscars, just for the pure joy of contrast. Between Trambley and Quvenzhane Wallis’ mind-boggling performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, this has been an incredible half-decade for child actors.
If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you may have noticed that I’ve left out some pretty pivotal information, which has been a big part of all the posters and trailers, and almost all the promotional images I was forced to use here. I was lucky enough to go into this movie without watching paying attention to any of the marketing materials (I was simply sold at ‘Brie Larson’), and feel I got far more out of the experience as a result to my naivety. I would recommend anyone who hasn’t already seen the trailers to stay away from them and go into this movie as blind as possible. Only a re-watch (and I’m sure this is one of those movies I’ll watch too many times to count) will tell if the lack of surprise will damage my overall opinion of Room in the future.
As it stands, I can’t recommend the movie highly enough. It is one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had watching a movie, and will surely go down as a classic. A few minor flaws (the aforementioned directorial decision and a distracting minor character) do nothing to dent the movie’s powerful message and meticulous execution. See it before the Oscar hype begins, and then see it again after the Oscar hype begins. And then see it again once the buzz dies down. And then again and again, because it doesn’t get much better.
Score: 5 out of 5