starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy
screenplay by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel
directed by Lenny Abrahamson
by Walter Chaw If you've read the book, you'll probably like the movie. If you haven't, like me, you'll have some questions. Lenny Abrahamson's Room is about how a child's "plasticity" allows him to better recover from extreme psychological trauma. It's about how the adults in said child's life can aid in the process of recovery by hiding things from him and also letting him know that the reason the adults are better is because the child is a hero, and strong, and an appropriate catalyst for healing. That the adults' mental health is, in fact, the child's responsibility. I'm told the book is not exactly about those things, but then again, it's not exactly not about those things. Many watching the film find in it a redemptive story about a mother's relationship with her child. I find in it a seriously deranged, idealized fantasy in which an adorable little kid is given the weight of the world to carry and does so with no real ramifications for himself. I'd like to see a sequel to this film in which the little kid, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), reveals that he's been keeping roadkill in jars in the storm shelter he's moved into as a surrogate for his lost "room." I think that's the honest version of Room. You can leave comments at the bottom of this review that I will not read.
Jack's mother is referred to only as "Ma" throughout the book because it's told from the child's point of view, but she's given a name on screen, "Joy," because the film thought it needed to shift from that perspective for some reason. I think that novelist-now-screenwriter Emma Donoghue originally wanted to present an ironic counterpoint for a character who is manic and crazed from seven years as a sex-slave captive (five of them as a mother), oublietted away in some freak's (Sean Bridgers, who already played this role in Lucky McKee's The Woman) garden shed. I think Donoghue and Abrahamson moved away from presenting the film from Jack's perspective because that would have been too challenging for its audience. When a movie begins with the task of how best to simplify its source so as not to disturb its audience, it starts at a massive disadvantage. Compare the adaptation of Room with the adaptation of Michel Faber's Under the Skin by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer--another first-person narrative that is actually more challenging on screen than it was on the page. Consider it as a recent example that the kind of adaptation Room merited is possible; and that the kind of film that Room is, is massively disappointing for its broad appeal. A quarter of the audience at Telluride abandoned Under the Skin; nobody balked at Room. Under the Skin is the uncomfortable story of gender relationships. Room is the comfortable story of child abduction and the devastating emotional fallout from it.
Mother/son stuff is emotionally affecting. It doesn't matter if it's good. And Room isn't good. It's a tearjerker of the first magnitude, which only makes it the tearjerker version of a badly-tuned slasher flick. Having not one but three reunion scenes between mothers and their lost children is the equivalent of having three cat-through-the-window jump scares. It's emotional pornography. I like pornography; I don't watch it for the life lessons it wishes to impart. Joy is played by Brie Larson, who is frankly spectacular. She conveys every broad emotion required of her and manages a few small ones, too. She bears a resemblance to Robin Tunney--especially when she's upset and the slight unevenness of her eyes to each other comes into charming focus. Her best moment is during a network interview that she agrees to post-escape when she's asked questions she should have been prepared for, but wasn't. The best is whether she ever considered, when Jack was born, asking her captor to leave the baby at a fire station or a hospital so that at least he could have had freedom. Joy says, "But he's mine." That's an interesting moment. It's the defining moment of the film. Or it would have been had the picture disagreed with the sentiment. (It doesn't seem to.) Room is more interested in having Joy make cookies with Jack after Jack tells his amazing Granny (Joan Allen) that he loves her. Bring tissues. It's not a cat, it's a killer outside the window this time.
When Joy reveals her suffocating solipsism is when Room should have turned into a serious conversation about what happens to children when they are used to define their parents. Joy's smothering is even referred to visually when she rolls Jack up in a carpet and Jack screams that he hates her. At another point, Joy yells at her mother (who also has a name in the film, but I can't remember it. It's probably "Hope" or "Constance") that if her mother hadn't taught Joy to be so polite all the time, maybe she wouldn't have agreed to help the sicko with his "injured dog," lo, seven years ago now. It's not as good as the interview bit, but it likewise tickles at the idea that the problem here is when parents see children as empty vessels to be filled, or delicate artifacts to be protected, or magical panaceas for their own shortcomings and terminal loneliness. This should have begun a larger conversation.
Room is instead a very silly conversation about a little kid who doesn't want to cut his hair because his mother, as part of his home-school curriculum, has told him the Samson story--but then later does and sends it to his mother, who has been committed to an institution for trying to kill herself. He does this in order to give her the strength to heal her PTSD. It works, thank goodness. "You saved me," she says. That's almost as stupid a thing to say as when Granny tells Joy that Jack is "fine, he's really fine" after he draws a bucolic picture for his therapist, who is subsequently never seen again. A child attempting to recover from trauma draws a picture in Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation as well, and it's full of unspeakable pain and atrocity. I'm not certain that Beasts of No Nation is a great film, but at least it's not bullshit. Joy and Jack visit the Room again and Jack says "goodbye" to it, and so does Joy, and then they go home and roll around in piles of leaves and generally carry on like they were in an insurance commercial or something. The technical term for that is "bullshit."
Abrahamson shoots everything in autumnal wide shots and gets some good suspense out of the aforementioned escape, wherein young Jack is confronted with the world for the first time. His terror at being talked to by people who, just minutes in screentime ago, he did not believe to exist, is excellent and compelling and Abrahamson amplifies it with weird angles and too-bright lights. When Jack later, in the hospital, wets the bed and asks his mother if they're on another planet, well, Room is about to get good, we think. The doctor advises sternly that they should stay. Joy thinks about it not at all and says that she really wants to go home, and the doctor says that's fine and the film agrees with him. William H. Macy plays Joy's father. In the course of Joy's absence, he and Granny divorced. Grampy has a hard time imagining his daughter getting raped and then having a baby, so he doesn't look at Jack during dinner, and then the film sends him away for not being OK. It would be fine except that the film asks that we accept that Grampy is a dick. He certainly is compared to Granny's new husband.
That's a bullshit thing to do, because none of them should be OK, and unless this is a Lifetime movie of the week, none of them should be OK by the time the film is over, either. In that way, Grampy is the only honest thing about Room, and he's essentially used to allow the audience a victim to whom it can feel superior: "We would look at the dear thing. It's not his fault." It's like taking an impassioned stand on slavery. Good work there, Sojourner Truth. On this planet, it's OK to never heal from some things. Suggesting that it's not OK is dangerous and shitty. How can it be that "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" is smarter than Room? Abrahamson has a good eye. His compositions are intelligent. There's a scene where Jack is playing with toys on an upper-landing of Granny's tri-level when Granny's new husband, Leo (who has no listing on IMDb, so I'm at a loss here), sees him there from the ground floor and acts cagey so as not to spook the little guy. Abrahamson frames their essential division, follows Leo as he exits beneath Jack in the scene. It's vertiginous and dislocating. I think Abrahamson understands that Jack is more than a little fucked-up. If that's true, Room has betrayed him terribly, too.