Review: Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are remarkable in moving new drama 'Room'
TELLURIDE, CO – “Room” is not a movie about the horrors of abduction (although it is). “Room” is not a movie that wants to focus on the tabloid sensationalism of such abductions (although that aspect is used for a specific purpose). Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” is simply a movie about mother and son trying to adapt to the outside world after years of forced captivity. And the surprise is how succinctly it captures this drastic life change from the perspective of five-year-old.
When we first meet Jack (an impressive Jack Tremblay), he’s celebrating his birthday in Room. Room is a 10 feet by 10 feet living space that has everything Jack thinks he needs. There’s wardrobe (where he hides during Old Nick’s nightly visits), sink, TV, chair one, chair two, door (which only Old Nick can open) and, most importantly, skylight, his window into space. Jack has spent his entire life in Room. At an early age his mother aka Ma (Brie Larson) taught him that all that exists in the world is Room, outer space, the TV planets (where Old Nick gets them what they need to survive as well as the shows they watch on the screen) and heaven. What he’s never understood is there is actually something beyond the walls of Room or that his mother was kidnapped at the age of 17 by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) and has been his hostage ever since.
The obvious question any viewer will ask is why hasn’t Ma, who is quite intelligent and physically able, failed to escape? Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoguhe (who adapted her own novel) display just enough of Old Nick’s physical dominance over Ma to explain why she’s been trapped and abused for seven long years. One of the film’s minor issues is the audience could have used a slight bit more of Old Nick’s cruelty to understand the psychological toll Jack’s mother has endured. There’s a fine line of including too much of the villain in this particular story and, luckily, Larson’s exquisite and heartbreaking performance makes up for it.
After a physical altercation where Old Nick punishes his captives by turning off the electricity and heat, Ma sees an opportunity to use Jack to help them escape. After breaking the news to her son that there really is a big ol’ world out there (as you can guess it doesn’t go over well), she trains him for a mission that if all goes well will finally free her of this hell.
This particular sequence is where Abrahamson cinematic skills really impress. He’s already captivated your attention for over 40 minutes in one singular space (it doesn’t seem that long) and here he masterfully guides your eye to understand Jack’s confusion as he dramatically enters, what is to him, an alien experience.
There have been some very public media spectacles over the past decade about abductees in similar situations. Donoguhe, who made slight changes to the story’s third act, plays with your expectations in how Jack and Ma react to their newfound freedom. Television news usually focuses on the horrific details of the captivity and ignore the adjust process. Both Donoguhe and Abrahamson are much more interested in how these characters grow outside of Room and whether, as Ma notes, they can be happy again. The result is an emotional second half that often moves you with a single line during the most unexpected moments.
Larson will deserve all the praise she gets for her work here. She’s especially good when Ma agrees to sit down for a major network interview that questions her motivations as a mother when she's only agreed to talk to help pay their legal and medical bills. That being said, Tremblay is the real revelation. Abrahamson guides him to the finest performance by a young actor since Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” He's that good.
Among the rest of the cast, Joan Allen is effectively understated as Grandma and Tom McCamus provides Jack with a much-needed positive male role model in Grandma’s new husband Leo.
Cinematographer Danny Cohen gives Abrahamson a big assist by finding a way to avoid making Room seem claustrophobic and yet still small at the same time. Composer Stephen Rennicks’ memorable score heightens the emotional stakes when needed without crossing the line into saccharine melodrama.
“Room” opens in limited release on Oct. 16.