Savannah Oakes’s review published on Letterboxd:
”I want a different story!”
“No, this is the story you get!”
Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is a story you don’t want to know. You don’t want to feel it in any bone in your body. You don’t want to hear it on the radio driving home from work. You don’t want to see it on the news right after you tuck your kids into bed. You don’t want to hear it retold the next morning around the office followed by sighs and stoic shakes of the head. To most people the narrative of Room, no matter how tragic or how grounded in so many untold realities, is a simple melodrama. It’s acting on acting with sparse locations--basically theatre.
This conclusion is not necessarily wrong. There’s a lot about this film that would work on a stage just fine. Even Jacob Tremblay’s beautiful and moving voice overs could be performed like monologues under a spotlight. There is, however, one thing that stage could not capture which is the isolation, loneliness and desperation in the first half of the film as we watch Brie Larson’s Ma fight each and everyday to give her son Jack (Tremblay) a better reality than the one he was forced into.
Abrahamson puts himself in a corner, literally, in directing this film in that he is limited to one location for a good amount of the film. Not only one location but a location that has infinite amounts of importance. This is not to say that most locations don’t but unlike similar films, the one location use in this film is no gimmick. It is as much a barrier for the director as it is for the characters involved. the possibilities outside Room for the director are as innumerable as the ones imagined in the unreal world Ma tells Jack is dancing right outside it’s walls, right outside the shimmering skylight.
Making a one room location feel isolating is not difficult but what is even more effective is how he creates space. Clearly this is cinematically important but it is also narratively important. It is this which is the one rare instance of style and story in the film. By capturing every ounce of Room, every corner and every crevice, making it look new each shot allows for the audience to see it as Jack sees it. It’s not a prison necessarily to him. It’s all he knows. His imagination, his dreams, his hopes all lay within Room. When they expand outside his eyes, and the camera, gaze upwards towards the shimmering skylight and we are jolted back into the reality we know them to be in despite feeling as if it never existed. We live through Jack until we have to live through Ma.
Abrahamson directs the actor’s beautifully. It’s hard to tell whether Tremblay was a star before or after this film but whether it’s by his own young spirit or Abrahamson’s great direction, or a combination of the two, his performance is so good it’s absurd. Brie Larson is always good. If you still haven’t seen Brie Larson in something I promise you, you have. Just look at her filmography...you’ve seen something and she was good in it. Seeing her entrusted with roles like this is pleasing though not in the least surprising. She’s a special actress and one I hope continues choosing her roles as good as she has. She gives us drama, comedy, light, dark--always good. Here she gives us the shadow of a broken woman making herself up as a brave and optimistic mother. Sometimes the light dances and the facade falters. Sometimes the shattering is explosive other times it’s in a glance or a twitch of the cheek. With each passing scene the layers of her performance become even more complicated and inspiring even when it feels as though you can watch it no longer.
The first half of the film we are in Room. It is the place Ma has lived for seven years and Jack has lived since he was born. He knows nothing outside of Room. In order to keep Jack’s innocent, child-like view of the world in tact, Ma fabricates the intricacies of the real world. She tells Jack that everything outside of Room is TV and not real. The only real thing is them and Room. It’s not a Dogtooth level social experiment, it’s a mother’s honest and only hope of giving her son anything remotely resembling a “normal” childhood experience. Like a lot of childhood’s it is marked with adventure and hardship but the severity of their circumstances is always on the edge of the viewer even when it is not in Jack’s mind.
Eventually Ma hatches a plan to get them out of Room which involves Jack playing dead, being rolled up in a rug and subsequently unrolling himself once he is far enough from Room in the bed of Old Nick (the captors) truck. The police find him and eventually locate Ma though Old Nick is nowhere to be found. What follows feels, although extremely delicate and heartfelt, a little disappointing.
The first half deals more with Jack’s perspective and his delusion of the world and thus his relationship with Ma. The second half of the film, instead of reflecting on the effects of Jack’s new world latches onto Ma’s storyline as we watch her and her relationship with Jack become strained. As I understand it, the novel is told from Jack’s perspective with a very unique perspective. Of course relying on a young child actor to carry a film is hard to in adapting a novel like this one wants to take as much pressure off that possible actor as possible. Instead the choice seemed to balance the perspectives. It works. It work really well but the promise of this huge life-changing experience Jack should be going through in the second half of the film feels brushed over. The psychology in the film feels is too subtle for such a traumatic experience. It could have gained a lot from using the style of the film to illuminate Jack’s new world and his fear and curiosity in it. Just imagine a version of this film directed by Terrence Malick. I could only hope!
Despite wanting more of Jack’s perspective I did like the complications they gave Ma in the second half. I’m sure most of it was in the book but the underlying questions regarding Ma’s mentality and her suffering lingered. When she is being interviewed you realize just how much and to what extent you have been identifying with Ma. Not because you have been locked in a room for seven years but because, like her, your ultimate wish is to give Jack the best life possible. However what has always been true, and is revealed in the interview, is to what extent she needed Jack to get through everyday, to just survive, to not give up. The idea of her selfishness is a tough one to chew on which is why it’s dealt with in small increments. The guilt and shame she fears over the decision she made torments her and is, just in a sentence, an overbearing thought. However, on screen it is simply a melodramatic plot point instead of a unique observation Jack could have filtered or Ma could have repressed. For a movie about the effects of circumstances on one’s psychology, it’s take is pretty basic but that does not mean it is any less affecting. It’s narrative alone can get to you. I had to watch the first half and the second half a day apart just to make it through. I had the choice to pause before i moved forward, Jack had no choice but to keep running forward to his new present, to his new existence in the world outside of room.