Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers
Runtime: 1 hr 58 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Langauge)
Released By: Shaw
Official Website: http://www.room-filmintl.com/index.php
Opening Day: 14 January 2016
Synopsis: Both highly suspenseful and deeply emotional, ROOM is a unique and touching exploration of the boundless love between a mother and her child. After 5-year-old Jack and his Ma escape from the enclosed surroundings that Jack has known his entire life, the boy makes a thrilling discovery: the outside world. As he experiences all the joy, excitement, and fear that this new adventure brings, he holds tight to the one thing that matters most of all—his special bond with his loving and devoted Ma.
Imagine if the only world you grew up knowing was the inside of a 10-by-10 foot garden shed, equipped with a tub, a sink, a skylight, a bed, a closet and a toaster oven. Then imagine if you were the mother of a five-year-old boy imprisoned in such a place, abducted at the tender age of 19 by a stranger and raped systematically by the same man over the years, your child an unfortunate product of his beastly ways but simultaneously the only reason for which there is to live. As far-fetched as the premise of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 Man Booker-prize shortlisted novel may sound to you, it really isn’t – indeed, Donoghue was inspired by the infamous Josef Fritzl case in modern-day Austria, where a man confined his daughter in his basement for 24 years, where she gave birth to seven children fathered by him.
If ‘Room’ therefore sounds like a horror story, it is – and it isn’t. Adapted by Donoghue herself, it stays remarkably true to its source material by preserving the story from the boy, Jack’s (Jacob Tremblay), point of view and putting us squarely within his head space. And so rather than a physical and mental prison, everything for Jack in Room (not a “room” or “the room”, but simply “Room”) is significant and interesting. Each morning, Jack says, “Good morning, Room”, and proceeds to greet the objects and furnishings, “Good morning, Lamp/ Sink/ Bed/ Plant”. He reads aloud to his mother Ma (Brie Larson) before they sprint around Room for track practice. On the occasion of his fifth birthday, they even bake a cake in their tiny toaster oven – though Jack does make a fuss when the cake doesn’t come with any birthday candles.
That Jack has grown up to regard Room as his wonderland is no coincidence – in order to guard Jack’s innocence and well-being, Ma has created a safe world in Room for him, so much so that he thinks the outdoors is outer space and everything else in the world is trapped inside the television. In actual fact, the horror of their situation remains just as real. While Old Nick visits every night through a code-locked door to provide them with food, clothes and supplies, his nocturnal visits are also demands for sex, for which Ma makes sure Jack remains hidden in a cupboard and which we likewise observe either offscreen or hazily through cracks in the wardrobe. Old Nick’s tyranny however is all around – from the bruises on Ma to the scarcity of food to his punishment of turning off the power and heat for two days after an altercation.
The last act in particular triggers Ma to devise an escape plan for the both of them, which hinges on a dramatic change of perspective on Jack’s part, especially to appreciate that there is a much, much larger world outside of Room. When the time finally comes for Jack to make a break for it, it is as heart-stopping as it gets, even though it is hardly a guess whether he and Ma do get out. That development however divides ‘Room’ neatly into two acts, the second of which hits Ma and Jack with life outside of Room, which becomes a hugely disorienting experience that both mother and son spend some time getting used to and coming to terms with – and from the initial two-hander, the list of characters expands to include Ma’s parents Nancy (Joan Allen) and Robert (William H. Macy) as well as Nancy’s co-habitating partner Leo (Tom McCamus).
Because the two acts are quite distinct from each other, comparisons between them are somewhat inevitable, with the former likely emerging as the stronger half. Relying solely on Room as its setting and on the intimate relationship between mother and son, it conveys with crystal clarity not just the dread that their day-to-day existence is fraught with but more importantly how Ma has kept Jack’s mind and whimsy alive through her fantastical explanations of their surroundings. There is credit due all around – together with cinematographer Danny Cohen and production designer Ethan Tobman, director Lenny Abrahamson has created a world that is both painfully claustrophobic and yet expansive and never-suffocating, so that you will feel every inch of the cramped space as well as a profound sense of resilience in how Ma and Jack have managed to adapt to their current living conditions.
That the bond between Ma and Jack feels a little less defined in the latter act is to be expected, given how it deals also with their immediate relatives recover and heal from the ordeal. Can you blame Joy’s father for not being able to bring himself to look at his grandson, who was, after all fathered by a rapist? Or her mother struggling to come to terms with how she has lost seven years with her teenage daughter, who cannot yet quite bring herself to describe her harrowing experience? Or even Joy, who is at a loss for words when she is asked by a TV news host why she had taken Jack to live with her in Room all those years rather than let him live outside with Old Nick? There is a considerable shift of gears to portray life outside Room, but it also makes for a much more textured narrative.
It speaks volumes of the tremendous casting of Larson and Tremblay when we say that we cannot quite imagine ‘Room’ without the two of them. Larson’s breakout performance was in a similarly tough and vulnerable role in the 2013 drama ‘Short Term 12’, but the actress is simply astonishing here covering a whole gamut of emotions from fear, anger, defeat, perseverance, tenacity, possessiveness and utter despair as she struggles to keep Jack healthy, safe and happy while fighting off the temptation to sink into depression. Especially poignant is her portrayal of maternal love towards Jack, anchored by a terrific rapport between herself and newcomer Tremblay. The latter expresses both youthful innocence and profound depth in his debut role, and there is never a false note in his genuine and genuinely affecting performance.
As exploitative as its premise may sound, ‘Room’ transcends any doubts or scepticism one may have by simply being a beautifully observed portrait of hope and promise amidst horror and depravity. At its core is a deeply poignant parent/child relationship, rich and fascinating in its portrayal of the depths, possibilities and transformative power of parental love and beautifully realised by two of the very best acting you’ll see this year. Even more amazing is how it is told in the childlike wonder of its younger protagonist without coming off cloying or treacly in any way, but as a celebration of the immense ability of the human spirit and pure ingenuity to survive and thrive amidst some of the direst circumstances. It is both survival tale and family drama all at once, and remarkable either way.
(Tenderly and terrificly realised, this portrait of the depths, possibilities and transformative power of parental love amidst horror and depravity is one of the most intimately poignant films of the year)
Review by Gabriel Chong