Let me throw out a quick ode to the art of crying in the theater. There are occasional events and the anomalous semi-private room where it’s socially acceptable to cry in public. But anywhere else, a good public cry will likely get you an uncomfortable stare and a story told about you later. But in the theater, it’s perfectly acceptable to get into a room with a bunch of strangers and sob. You can hear other people doing it, and it really is OK. Just a part of the ride. You can cry from joy, from sorrow, from fear, from anger. And no one will think you’re crazy.
If you haven’t experienced the art of theater crying, I suggest you go see Room, where you’ll get a quick education in the art, thanks to one of the most haunting and emotionally crushing movies of the year.
Lenny Abrahamson, who was responsible for last year’s most quietly devastating story Frank, brings us Room, the story of Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Ma was kidnapped when she was a teenager by a man whom she only knows as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Ma is trapped in a shed with her five-year-old son Jack, and raises and provides for him alone, relying only on what Old Nick brings her. In order to give Jack some semblance of normality, she tells him the whole of his world is “Room,” the shed where they live.
But when Ma realizes that her life is threatened, she moves quickly to get Jack out of “Room” and into the wider world. While in any other film, this might be the final struggle, and a single scene in the hospital their coda, Room lets Ma and Jack leave a little around halfway into the film, and then becomes a story of adjustment. It’s about dealing with trauma and dealing with the process of growing up.
In a very extreme way, Room is the story of how children are sheltered, how devastating the process of opening up that world is for the children and why parents make the decisions they make. And the film has no interest in judging.
It simply presents that story, and presents it incredibly well — mostly. The time spent in “Room” is incredibly tense and wonderfully plotted. The little details that Ma gives to Jack about the world add a rich layer to their relationship, one that makes it all the more devastating when their relationship begins to be pulled apart and rebuilt. The scene where Jack escapes is also a masterwork of direction and tension.
And the second half, the story of adjusting to the outside world again, one that could have dive-bombed the film, is a story that soars. It’s the story that’s earning this film so much praise and so much Oscar buzz. So much of that is thanks to the performances of Larson and Tremblay.
Larson is the absolute MVP of this film and my favorite for Best Actress at this moment. Saying that she is an underrated actress is probably a film reviewer cliché at this point, but for all her solid supporting work and her amazing lead work, she still hasn’t received the recognition she deserves. Here, Larson is someone who is constantly putting two or three different performances for the people around her, and she truly shows the strain and difficulty that comes with it. She convincingly portrays everything she’s asked and the amount of pain she can convey with a blank stare is perhaps this film’s most effective tool.
Tremblay is a much more complicated case. It’s not that Tremblay isn’t phenomenal. He’s given a lot of work and he really knocks it out of the park. The much bigger emotional arc of the film is with him, and he actually manages to pull it off in very subtle ways with the little changes on his face and with the subtleties of his actions. He straddles the line between the likeable and sweet kid and the know-it-all brat, and does it well.
But often, it’s hard to be sure whether or not a child performance is a result of the child themselves or the director and other actors giving the child clear direction and something the child can play to. Often, good child performances speak to the strength of the director, and Abrahamson’s direction is strong. He keeps the film tight and oppressive when necessary and he opens it up when the world simply seems too big for Ma and Jack. Abrahamson’s conception of the outside world is alien until it gradually becomes familiar and real.
But as strong as Abrahamson’s sense of his world and his actors is, Abrahamson throws a few baffling choices into the film. He relies far too heavily on an unfortunately cloying score. The score puts huge swelling strings and tearjerking ambience and ends up feeling far too manipulative in moments that don’t need a strong score to hit our emotions. And then there’s the narration.
It’s a testament to how good the rest of this film is that the narration doesn’t totally blow a hole in it, but it also doesn’t help. At multiple times during the film, Jack narrates his point of view and his limited perspective on the world as he uncovers it. It’s incredibly irritating in how fine an underline the narration seems to want to put on scenes that honestly and completely don’t need any extra underlines. The film would have played fine without the narration laying things out for us, and it becomes frustrating when it keeps coming up. While my understanding is that this is because the original book was entirely from Jack’s POV, this isn’t something the film needs. Film is a visual medium, and Room is a visual enough film that these bits of narration serve little purpose.
Both these decisions speak to a weird undercurrent of nervousness the film has about itself. It’s one that translates well in the scenes where Ma and Jack have to fill out their world, but when the film should have a moment to breathe and be confident, some huge score or Jack’s narration kicks in to let the audience know how they should feel.
But even these things don’t take truly damage the phenomenal work and the power of this film. Room is a tear-jerking thrill ride. It’s one that will have you lost in the world and in love with the characters. If it wasn’t for a sense that the people involved were a little too worried about everyone fully understanding the film, this could be a true classic. But for those who see it, it’ll be very difficult to escape from Room.