One of the biggest and most common accusations one faces when one decides to try and become a film critic is people that complain you only focus on the negative aspects of a film. Four or so days after watching Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own best-selling novel, I am only able to think about the elements that I think could have been improved. However, I am determined to not let the aforementioned accusations be raised. Thus, even if it might seem at certain points of this review that I am focusing on the things I didn’t like about Room, I want to start out by saying that said focus is so strong because the rest of the movie is so strong. It takes a truly strong movie for me to fixate so obsessively on its weaknesses. It’s because I would love for it to be perfect.
Before we get into the negativity, let me tell you that Room is a mother-son story about a woman who was kidnapped at the young age of sixteen, and has spent seven years trapped in a single room. The last five of those years she’s been accompanied by the child that is the product of the abuse of her kidnapper. The movie is presented from the kid’s point of view, and much of the first half is spent showing the worldview that would develop out of a child who has spent all of his life in a single room. To Jack, that’s the kid’s name, everything outside of “room” is negative space. He hears stories about plants, animals, places; and to him, they’re all mere fantasies.
Some mind consider the following plot-point to be a spoiler, but I knew it going into the movie and it didn’t diminish my enjoyment one bit, so I’ll go ahead and say it: the second half of the movie deals with the aftermath of this mother and child finally escaping their prison and their struggle to reintegrate into the “normal” world. Despite this being the more “conventional” half of the film, it ends up being the more fascinating one. There aren’t any huge twists or surprises in this second half, really. It’s just a careful and touching story about two broken people trying to understand a world that is (or has grown) completely foreign to them. This is the perfect moment to mention that the mother is played by the wonderful Brie Larson, and the son is the product of an outstanding child performance by young Jacob Tremblay.
Larson and Tremblay lead an solid ensemble whose emotional truthfulness makes us invest in the emotional well-being of these characters. Where most movies have us rooting for a hero to deactivate a bomb and save the world, or punch an evil super-villain into submission, Room‘s characters are only looking for normalcy. They want what most of us already have. What is granted, but we would never want to lose. That’s why we care so much about them. That, and the power of performance. Among the supporting cast, the great Joan Allen stands out as the grandma who slowly learns to connect with her alien grandson. Just seeing this kid discover the simplest elements of daily life becomes overwhelmingly touching.
It is of course, to director Lenny Abrahamson’s credit that our reactions are so emotional. Getting a good performance out of a five year-old child is never easy. It requires patience, talent, and a good bag of editing tricks. On that front, the direction is spotless. That being said, one of the movie’s biggest letdowns is the Abrahamson’s visual approach to the story. He does use shallow-focused close-ups to make us look at the world through the kid’s point of view, but it isn’t quite enough. The first half of the movie, the one set entirely within the room could have used a little bit more formal rigidness. A specific visual conceit that made us understand the limitations of the space better, so that the opening of the door into the real world could be as dramatic in cinematic terms as it is for the character’s psychology.
On that note, my real disappointment with this movie is that its decision to narrow on the child’s perspective. As I said, the kid’s scenes in the second half can be incredibly touching, but his arc is far less complicated and, honestly, less interesting than that of the mother. Brie Larson does a fantastic job of providing subtextual hints into the further life of her character’s psychology, but she disappears for large chunks of the movie, and her development in the second half -which is, on paper and from what we see in the movie quite fascinating- gets the short shift. This is apparent in the film’s last scene, which is the one moment in which the movie gives up to full sentimentality. The sequence is meant to provide closure to both characters’ arcs, but because so much of the mother’s story has developed offscreen, the moment reads as a repetitious bow on the kid’s story.
These are the things that I can’t stop thinking about. That last scene in particular bothers me to no end. But like I said, it’s only because the rest of Room is so strong. What the movie does well, it does really, really well.