Sunday, January 31, 2016
If you’re checking off Oscar films this month and get to Lenny Abrahamson‘s Room, then take a moment to stop and appreciate the work of Brie Larson. The likely Best Actress winner plays Joy - also referred to as “Ma” - a woman raising her 5-year old son Jack (a supremely poised Jacob Tremblay) in what appears to be a large garden shed. Mother and son’s only view of the outside world (which Jack doesn’t know exists) is a skylight and their only contact a man known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). If you don’t already know any more about the situation that means you haven’t read the novel by Emma Donoghue upon which her screenplay and the film are based. Donoghue’s most radical choice was to tell the story of Jack and Ma through Jack’s eyes and Jack’s understanding, and Abrahamson maintains that point of view as much as possible. Room begins with a long sequence establishing Ma and Jack’s daily routine, one filled with breakfast, games, TV, exercise, and the occasional temper tantrum. Jack doesn’t know the truth of their situation but Ma does, and Brie Larson is very good at playing Ma’s approach to a state of complete exhaustion. If Room is about anything besides Jack’s resilience it’s about the idea of adulthood - and motherhood in particular - as a performance, and Ma’s ability to carry off her role is becoming doubtful. Brie Larson also played a troubled caregiver very well in Short Term 12, but she goes deeper here thanks to her natural understatement, chemistry with Tremblay, and some canny external choices. (Room could win an Oscar for “Lack of Make-up”.)
Can we stop here for just a moment to acknowledge just how terrible the trailer for Room is? The spot gives away the second half of the film, in which after an act of bravery by Jack the story moves to new locations and introduces characters played by Joan Allen, Tom McCamus, and (briefly) William H. Macy. Abrahamson and Donoghue maintain Jack’s point of view in these scenes. Ma’s confusion and unhappiness is viewed from the outside, and Jack’s growing assimilation into a new life is defined in terms of bowls of cereal and a haircut. Ma’s uncertainty about the rest of her life and her own abilities as a mother is a rich subject, but the distance the movie keeps from those feelings becomes more problematic as the film goes along. There are striking moments in Room that convey the childhood feeling of the world filling up Jack’s senses, but the film keeps going back to that well at the expense of Ma’s story. Finally, despite Larson’s performance, Room is a film that views the world as something to either be embraced or endured with nothing in between. It’s that simplistic viewpoint that keeps Room from being all it could, and it’s also the reason I stopped reading the novel after 60 pages. Brie Larson deserves her Oscar, but there are better films in her future.