Film: Room


Room | Director Lenny Abrahamson | Score: 6.2

It always seems like a good idea to write an adult novel from the perspective of a child right up until you hit that first roadblock of language and nuance, and you realize you’ve just tasked yourself with trying to make a Hadron Collider while wearing a blindfold. The limitations of childhood consciousness are much more difficult than the standard small, negotiable puzzles one can solve the way one can address a thorny logic issue, or something to do with time continuity. Children are limited not only by what they see, and take in, but what they can accurately address, in terms of adult emotional responses. This is why so many child narrators turn out to be almost supremely advanced in ways of language and comprehension: It’s not just a writerly quirk, without the potential of that easy fix, you’re left trying to describe tiny emotional fragments with a fart noise.

Emma Donoghue’s novel and resulting screenplay address this issue in an interesting way: The narrator of the novel, and the main character portal in the film, is a five-year-old boy named Jack (played magnificently by Jacob Trembly). Jack lives with his Ma, Joy (Brie Larson), in a small, soundproofed shed with a lone skylight to serve as their window on the world. Quickly, we learn that Joy and Jack have been imprisoned there by a male captor they only call Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), a quick-tempered sort, who brings them food and other necessities in the evenings, where he also takes the opportunity to bed down with the long-suffering Joy. Everything Jack knows about existence is between his Ma and the small details of their 15×15 box (measurement approximate). A good deal of scenes in the early going of Lenny Abrahamson’s film are devoted to watching Jack as he stares up at the skylight, or across the dirty, linoleum floor of their dwelling, eyeing frayed carpet fibers, or a mouse skittering from behind the refrigerator.

Shortly after Jack turns five, however, his Ma decides she has to do something – anything – to get her son out of there and to safety. She hatches a plan to get him outside the shed, with explicit instructions on what to do if he gets the opportunity to run. (*For those who wish to witness the film from a spoiler-free vantage point, feel free to skip the rest of this paragraph and jump on down below.*) Once freed, and eventually reunited, Jack then has to navigate the sudden, large, intensely complex world he’s now been taken into. To make matters worse, Ma, who was so desperate for them to escape and return to her parents’ home before, seems more sad and traumatized now than she ever did with the two of them together in ‘room.’ Even going so far as to yell at her mother (Joan Allen), and resent her still-grieving father (William H. Macy), whose lives were both destroyed after their daughter was abducted.

Much of the film’s drive and cohesiveness comes from the energy of its two leads. Larson, who was rightly celebrated for her commanding performance in the criminally neglected Short Term 12, continues to display her impressive chops. Ma is fiercely protective of Jack, but also at odds with how to best serve him once they are out of their confinement. Trembly is simply a wonder, producing an affectless performance of what would be an extremely difficult part for a seasoned veteran. Watching his mother sleep, greeting a live dog for the first time, even awkwardly trying to hold a phone receiver to his ear, Trembly perfectly sells the overwhelming absurdity of the modern world’s contrivances without ever resorting to over-selling.

Despite the fine performances, and the nuanced storytelling, there still feels as if something is missing, however. Despite the film’s deeper exploration of Ma – the book keeps her only as a figment of Jack’s consciousness, which leaves her something of a cypher – Jack’s limitations of understanding color some of the film’s heavier moments with a kind of unwelcome sheen. Watching the suffering Ma endures, from her parents’ worry, to the grind of publicity press constantly trying to speak with her, to her realization that the world at large didn’t stop moving after her abduction, solely through Jack’s viewpoint limits the film in a way that feels more frustrating than revelatory.

As good as Larson is, and as much as the film tips us as to her emotional make-up, it still feels as if we’re missing too many key scenes. It’s entirely possible to respect and appreciate the film’s sticking to its narrative guns as far as its self-imposed limitations, but that doesn’t quite mean we don’t feel the loss of what we’re not allowed to witness.


piersPiers Marchant is a film critic and writer based in Philly.

Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.


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