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Room (2015)


I don't want to write about Room. Lenny Abrahamson's big-screen adaptation of Emma Donoghue's novel is one of the best films I've seen this year, and it's been on my mind since last week's advanced screening. But there's little compulsion in me to share my thoughts, hardly energy to pump out five hundred or a thousand words on what makes it so devastating and special. This movie requires time to percolate, to resonate, to be dissected by folks far more qualified than me, who can shape its analysis into a film-studies unit that will blow some future student's mind.

Room reminds me of a Facebook meme I read regarding exoplanets yesterday. HD189773 Ab exists just sixty-three light years outside our solar system, and from the safety of our comfortable, curious gaze, it looks big, blue, and serene. But scientists say it is plagued by talc storms, whose six-thousand-mile-per-hour winds blow hot rock granules around the planet's fifteen-hundred-degree surface. Whatever instrument recorded this data did so from relative safety, and transmitted it to a building in a city in a state on our planet--a planet whose inhabitants may never know what whirling, fifteen-hundred-degree talc looks like up close.

Such is how we see the plight of Ma (Brie Larson), a twenty-four-year-old woman who essentially lives in a box. As a teenager, she stopped to help a man she now calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) find his dog, and wound up his captive. Old Nick confined her to a room with a sink, a bed, a closet, a TV, a rug, and a tiny skylight. Later, he gave her a son named Jack (Jacob Tremblay), whom Ma raises ostensibly on her own in this confined space (the reinforced, soundproofed walls render cries for help utterly pointless). Seven years on, Ma and Jack call "room" home. Actually, they just call it "room". They call the rug "rug", the sink "sink", and on and on. No need for articles here, since whatever’s in room is all there is, anywhere and forever.

Jack is happy in room. For him, it's a fantasy play-land where stringing together egg shells conjures up snakes, and where the inset wardrobe is a fortress that protects him from Old Nick's late-night visits to Ma. It's best that Jack "sleeps" whenever Nick drops by, day or night. Sometimes the captor brings presents and supplies; mostly he brings threats and sexual assault. Ma seems to have tuned out of everything not directly associated with Jack. After more than a half-decade into her confinement, she has adapted enough to move past stir-craziness and despair, into a tentative acceptance phase. Because this life is all Jack will ever know, she has partially convinced herself, too, of the absolute nature of room.

Abrahamson, cinematographer Danny Cohen, and production designer Ethan Tobman achieve an amazing feat with the first half of their movie. For the audience, as for the characters, room is at once claustrophobic and deliriously immersive. We get the sense that it's small, but also full of possibilities. When a mouse makes its way inside, Ma kills it without hesitation, and we think, "Good. Can't live in a sealed box with vermin". Then we think, "Wait a minute, is the box actually sealed?" Skylight lets in sun, but sometimes its rays are interrupted by patches of snow or the odd brown leaf. Other times, it offers a bright, blue window into nothingness.

As fascinating as this stay in room is, we do reach a point when enough is enough. As if Abrahamson and company had focus-grouped the precise moment of imminent walk-outs, Room switches gears, exploding into a post-traumatic-stress drama. It's not really a spoiler to reveal that Ma and Jack escape and find their way back to Ma's parents’ (William H. Macy and Joan Allen) house, but that's as far as I'll go (you and the Film Studies folks can open that can of worms on your own). Suffice it to say, their journey is a nails-ripping, emotionally raw endeavor, and Ma and Jack's adjustment to life in a wide, alien world gives Room its heart and meaning.

You'll be hearing a lot about Larson and Tremblay in the coming months. You may even think, "Great, another 'break-out' child actor". But I'm telling you, I haven't had such a visceral reaction to a young performer since Haley Joel Osment saw dead people in The Sixth Sense. Tremblay displays an intuitive relationship with his character that feels at once natural and meticulously engineered to wrench every bit of feeling from each scene. Larson serves her role incredibly well, making Ma’s transition from pillar of strength to vulnerable, developmentally arrested wreck plausible and relatable.

Shocking but true, most of this film’s audience will have never actually been kidnapped. But I’d bet more than a few of them have been held captive to addiction, to self-doubt, to the horrendous guilt a parent can feel when they’re “trapped” with an unruly child. More moviegoers than not, I imagine, have confronted the awkward impulse towards self-pity and self-destruction, both in times of conflict and in times of triumph—and have perhaps lost more times than they’ve won. At first glance, Room might look like an art-house spin on movie-of-the-week melodramas, but it’s a beautifully deceptive assemblage of metaphors, an emotional Rorschach Test that will haunt anyone who dares to enter. It’s almost too much to think about, really, and now I just want to hide.

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