-from contributing editor, Andy Ray
If you’ve heard early Oscar buzz regarding , believe it. This is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, Room tells the harrowing story of a woman held hostage in a garden shed for seven years. During that time, she gives birth to a son, fathered by her captor. As Room begins, Ma and her son, Jack, are celebrating, such as they are able, Jack’s fifth birthday.
While this may sound eerily similar to stories ripped from today’s headlines, it is actually a work of fiction whose realism is, at times, excruciating to watch yet deeply fulfilling. Room is not a horror story, but rather a life-affirming breath of fresh air in what is so far a relatively bland Oscar season.
Brie Larson plays Joy Newsome, and newcomer Jacob Tremblay plays Jack. Their performances are worth every penny you’ll spend at your local cineplex. Joy, or Ma, has done an excellent job of meting out only the information young Jack will understand. What might be too painful for him, she has spun into a story of life contained only within their four walls. Consequently, Jack believes the skylight at the top of their shed sees outer space. He believes all television is make-believe – even the news. In his world, there are only two inhabitants. A third, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) shows up every now and then to sleep with Ma, while Jack retreats to the wardrobe. In Jack’s world, Old Nick comes from, and returns to, outer space. Ma reads to him from a small stack of children’s books, and they cook whatever Old Nick provides them on a dirty old stove and toaster oven.
Shortly following Jack’s fifth birthday, Ma begins to tell him about the outside world, much to Jack’s consternation. Soon thereafter, Joy begins to plan their escape. While a first plot fails, the second succeeds, and soon Joy and Jack are free. And this is where the story gets really interesting. Much as in John Boorman’s 1972 classic Deliverance, the gripping psychological drama begins after the primary action of the film is complete. In Room, Joy and Jack take up residence with Joy’s mother and her husband. Ironically, Jack adapts more successfully, even though (and perhaps because) he has never had any contact with the outside world. Heck, he didn’t even know there was an outside world until shortly before their escape. Joy has more difficulty.
A story like this would be sure to capture national attention, and Emma Donoghue’s screenplay doesn’t skirt this fact. Joy’s adjustment obstacles are magnified during her first press interview, an elaborately staged affair which takes place in her mother’s living room. After the interviewer’s questioning causes Joy to rethink her decision to keep Jack with her in the shed rather than ask Old Nick to give him up for adoption, she takes a step which I found unconvincing. Without giving away any plot twists, her action here seems uncharacteristically uncaring, given her deep and obvious love for young Jack.
On the other hand, Room succeeds on many levels. First, I loved the fact that the script calls for Jack to narrate, rather than his mother. This forces us to understand Joy’s predicament through the embryonic mind of her budding son, rather than through her more experienced lens. This narrative choice “softens the blow,” if you will, of their distressing predicament, while simultaneously forcing us to marvel at Joy’s presentation of that predicament to her son.
I also liked how Old Nick is not depicted as some monster we might find in a lesser film. Obviously he is human, as well as sick. And while we are allowed to see Old Nick’s quick temper a time or two, he does display a certain sense of altruism toward his captives. Even his evening trysts with Joy are downplayed by director Abrahamson. I relish his decision to treat his audience as adults. We know Old Nick is clearly a deranged and atrocious individual; we don’t need it crammed down our throats.
And as in most great pictures, the satisfying ending is a true gem of writing and acting. I was so touched I wanted to disappear while the ushers cleaned the theatre so that I could immediately see it a second time.
As far as Oscars are concerned, it’s obviously too soon to know, but I would be shocked if Room is not a Best Picture contender, as well as Brie Larson for Best Actress. This is by far her meatiest role, and she instantly cements her position as one of our best young actresses. Jacob Tremblay is the real find here. In his first major role, he presents a five-year old as exactly that – a five-year old (even though Tremblay was actually eight when Room was filmed). In other words, we don’t think we’re watching an older child playing younger, the way Judy Garland did in The Wizard Of Oz, or the way Kim Darby did in the original True Grit. Yes, the script embodies the mind and soul of an abnormally sheltered five-year old, but it’s on Tremblay to pull it off successfully. The result is one of the three best performances I’ve ever seen by a child actor, ranking with Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon and Anna Paquin in The Piano. He’s that good! My very strong fear is that the Motion Picture Academy will incorrectly put him in the Supporting Actor category simply so he can win, when he belongs in the Lead Actor category. Heck, he’s in every scene. If that’s not a lead actor, I don’t know what is.
But that’s a bone to pick with the academy – not with this brilliant, engrossing, and very touching story. Room is one you’ll remember for years to come. I’ve never seen anything like it before. And given the fact that the subject matter could have produced a sickening portrait of an oppressed woman and child clumsily acquainting themselves with an uncaring society, Room is a tender, moving portrait of the unbreakable bond between a mother and her child – even during the most distressing of circumstances.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appears on website TheFilmYap.com