Saturday, December 12, 2015


Room is the type of film you go to and you tell yourself that it's about gut-punches, that it's about re-evaluating the small things you don't appreciate in life and giving yourself over to something moving, horrifying, and profound.  A young woman (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are held captive in a small, shoddy space.  It it all that Jack has ever known, and he speaks in terms that limit the possibilities of the outside.  Things beyond 'Room' are not real, the names he knows for objects seem to make them the only versions of their kind, and there's a perverse storybook logic to his naive relationship with the objects left only to keep them alive as a shadowy figure, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) makes his nightly visits.  Because Jack controls the narration, we know the young woman only as Ma but understand her as a girl interrupted, a figure trying desperately to protect the innocence of the child she now has in spite of the circumstances surrounding his conception.  She is a mother though she should not be one, and in 'Room' she oscillates between lamenting the life cut short for her and wanting, desperately, to reclaim that for her son.     

Nuances of emotion are required of the performances in Room, and these are the source of any power it wields.  It does not succumb to the lurid horror of its ripped-from-the-headlines situation, and it has excised the overtly melodramatic from its vocabulary.  Instead, it is a sparse and impressionistic, its outlines limited by the vantage of a young child, its poetry colored by our adult understanding of what it is he sees.  While Tremblay's performance is demanding (and it's worth noting the kid seems to suffer none of the obnoxious precocious tics of so many child actors), this is a star-making turn for Larson.  She's been around for awhile, as the rebellious daughter on Showtime's "United States of Tara", in memorable supporting roles in comedies like Trainwreck and Scott Pilgrim, and yes, in Short Term 12, a film that merited further attention.  In Room she drains herself of the wit that has been her accidental calling card. She becomes like the black hole at the film's emotional center. Every opportunity for histrionics hits her and is broken down, absorbed, and reprocessed as a devastating glimpse or a stillness we read volumes into.  It's a role that requires her to be everything at once while the character feels capable of being none of those things, and Larson pulls it off like it's second nature. She makes us understand the impossibilities of a normal existence, that reentry into life is something that might still feel out of reach even when you've achieved it.

I appreciate all of this about Room, and understand that for many it will serve to reveal something of the world as they forget to see it.  While the cinematography is fairly stark, there's a certain poetry to the film's careful balance of glimpsed instances and narrative plotting.  By all counts, this makes it a successful film and a good one, yet I'll be honest: I file this under movies I went to see out of some sense of awards season completionism.  Will I ever watch it again? Probably not. It's exactly the kind of movie that will grow cloying in my memory the more the accolades are piled on, even as I may know better.

My reaction to Room is nearly the same as my reaction to the Emma Donaghue novel it's adapted from: that it's the type of fiction that becomes important in part because of the severity of its subject matter, because there's a heavy emotional weight that permeates the thing, and because if you can write or perform a character that suffers well, the narrative necessity becomes an afterthought.  I did not much like the book (in part because I found the narration a touch unbelievable), and I can't say that I liked the film either.  It works as a formal experiment, growing in intensity with the shifting sizes of its world, making its content palatable through the odd logic of a young child, masking its oppressive dreariness just enough that you may grimace but probably won't roll your eyes.  That formal experiment, though, can only last so long. The further Room goes the more it begins to show its seams and succumb to the inevitable.  There's a cinematic opportunity not taken once Jack meets the outside world, and it leaves the film feeling like even more of a slog than it should be.

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