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Drama Film Review 2015: "Room" (Written by Emma Donoghue, Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, w/ Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay)
Lenny Abrahamson, the Dublin, Ireland-born writer-director whose recent claim to fame was last year's highly eccentric and semi-biographical film "Frank" starring Michael Fassbender as a mystical musical prodigy and Maggie Gyllenhaal who plays his theremin and Korg-playing musical sidekick. Where that film was highly experimental in nature with a very loose narrative, incongruous shooting style and a rather huge overreach for Fassbender out of his comfort zone, "Room" knows what it wants and how to get there especially in its harrowing and highly relatable story. The fact that this movie handles a number of harsh, thematic threads so exceedingly well should be credited to Emma Donoghue who adapted her book as a screenplay and, perhaps her most of all, knows precisely what to incorporate from the source and what to omit. Like other author-screenwriters, namely "Gone Girl"-scribe Gillian Flynn and "Fight Club" writer Chuck Pahalnuk, Donoghue's instincts are spot-on here.
The story depicted here is rather grim, at first. Brie Larson plays young mother Joy, who, at 17 years old was befriended by a seedy stranger needing assistance with his dog only to find herself the victim of a kidnapping plot. Boarding her up in an extremely small shed in his backyard, that stranger "Old Nick" manipulates her subtly to the point where she is dependent on him for money, food, electricity, and, most astonishingly, sex. Joy grits her teeth and bares it and, at the two year mark of her unlawful and off-the-grid incarceration, has a kid by Old Nick named Jake who is as wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as kids in that situation are likely to be. He is a remarkable dreamer who created make-believe characters and alternate stories in order to cope with whats been done to him and his mom. Cute, but never cloying, newcomer Tremblay has an unmistakable, lived-in authenticity to his performance and his chemistry with Larson's Joy, who he adoringly refers to as "Ma" is the centerpiece of this picture. The flick is shot in a foreboding, washed-out blue filter that fills the frame with a sense of doom and gloom. Despite this, it retains its sense of hope that is never heavy-handed. Quiet, meditative moments are aplenty and there's really beauty in the silences.
The film definitely enlivens its pace in the second and third acts where Joy and Jake devise a daring escape plan that involves Jake playing dead (Joy's reasoning to Old Nick would be that when he killed the power out of retaliation for fighting with him, Jake got violently ill and died). Carefully orchestrated and not a moment too soon or too late, Joy rolls up her son in an enormous floor rug as she hassles Old Nick to take him to bury his body. As Jake's body bounces around in the back of Old Nick's dark red pickup truck, he sees glimmers of light and foliage/trees and birds chirping. It is in this moment that he realizes he's escaped and for a kid who has never had a chance to see the world outside his "Room" the film drives home this moment's significance very well. You feel the breathless and life-affirming rush that the outside world has on Jake and that it was everything Joy envisioned for him that it would be. As he makes a mad dash out of the truck, his world's collide as a passersby notices that something is a miss and calls the cops on Old Nick as Jake is pried from the scheming Old Nick's grasp and into the arms of a female police officer. It is a very jarring scene and shot using guerilla-style shaky-cam to put the viewer right in the action. Scenes like this are what compromise the backbone behind the efficacy of the film's message and translating Donoghue's profound material to insightful social commentary.
On the subject of Brie Larson, she is still considered the underdog wildcard when compared to Jennifer Lawrence who has seemingly, overnight, catapulted from proud indie star ("Winter's Bone" and "Silver Lining's Playbook") to franchise pack-leader ("Hunger Games" series and the prequel rebooted "X-Men" franchise). Larson has wisely stayed very far away from franchises even though her biggest budget film to date was the deliriously enjoyable comic book-inspired "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World". Her turn in 2013's "Short Term 12" which, like this film, succeeded or failed largely on the strength of her performance and fit for the role and material, literally brought tears to my eyes. I am definitely on Team Larson. I was nearly as choked up with this venture especially because of the minimalist, character-study approach the film took. It is as much a survival tale as it is a psychodrama that makes on-point assertions about the psychology of predators, kidnappers and law-breakers and the lengths they will go to take advantage of the innocent. Tremblay's Jake, who narrates this film as he does in the book, offers the audience a palatable look at the emotional stakes at hand and how someone must rise to the occasion against the insurmountable odds stacked against them.
This film has a number of influences - Jonathan Demme's "Man On Fire", Dennis Villeneuve's star-studded "Prisoners", and even "Every Mother's Worst Fear" whose common denominators all involve a child in the kidnapping plot. But, this one is significantly more stripped down as it isn't a major studio film with 75% of its running time having only one location. I can't say I can recommend this film to everyone. Even if you are an admirer of the above films, there is no flash to this picture but its substance is filled to the brim. It made me recall and yearn for parts of my childhood - some parts idyllic, mysterious but always filled with wonder and a pursuit of the next, great adventure.