Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson (Frank)
Synopsis: Mother and child have been held captive in a small garden shed for 5 years (the mother was kidnapped 2 years earlier) while the mother gets routinely raped by their captor. Anything outside the walls of this shack are unknown to the kid. Finally they outwit the captor and escape the shack and have to acclimate themselves to the real world.
What work(s): If you’ve watched last night’s Academy Awards you’d know that Brie Larson won best actress and it was probably deserving although I have yet to see the other performances. But truth be told, Brie did a bang-up job as the young mother named Joy, who was kidnapped as a teen and forced to be a sex slave while protecting her young son. Her performance really gets way better with the second half of the story which is when she escapes with her son and tries to get used to her old way of living with all that past trauma. Larson is a young actress and hasn’t had that many dramatic roles yet and I hope she continues on this strong path.
But what I don’t understand with the horrible Oscars and their baffling way of giving credit where credit is due and the real break-out star of this film is the young 5-year-old Jack played by Jacob Tremblay. What a great performance by a child actor. He was nominated about 17 times for his performance by other film associations yet was snubbed at the Oscars! Sure, Larson was great but Tremblay was outstanding. He carries the whole film and we, more or less, see the film through his eyes and experience. He was born into captivity with limited exposure to anything outside the shack’s walls and it’s sometimes hard to watch him overcome his fears as he struggles to be acquainted with anything that we take for granted—like clouds or traffic! He is also the de facto narrator and his lines are very profound and poetic and really give the film some dramatic heft.
What fail(s): Yet, and I’m sorry to say this, but it could’ve used a lot more heft. This film left me very cold and emotionless at most times. I wanted to feel so much for Larson and Tremblay and empathize with their journey but the film seemed so lax in that endeavor. Literally the first half of a 2 hour film is them in the shack, so that only leaves them with another hour to show the real conflict of this story, which is the acclimation to the real world and not being captive anymore. Especially for Jack who has never been outside yet. Without being too harsh, he makes it well enough for a 5-year-old. He overcomes most obstacles and fears very quickly—which is fine and probably accurate but that doesn’t make for good drama. Is it OK for me to want more struggling in my cinematic conflicts? I seem to have made this argument or complaint before with Shame, Boyhood and Spotlight and it’s the same deal here with Room. I want pain and anguish for my heroes to overcome. Going through real pain on screen. Towards the end, Larson breaks down and attempts suicide because of the ordeal but a few scenes later she’s back home and fine. I’m sorry but that’s just weak storytelling to me.
By the end of the film (and I think it was just a few weeks after their escape in the film’s timeline) Jack has made a friend and helps out his grandparents at home and the final scene is they go back and visit the shack! Believe me, I understand why they want to visit the shack and I totally get why this makes perfect sense to show their growth as characters and it works but on such a ‘meh’ level. No tears from Larson, no hate or fear or anger towards the 7 years she was tortured in this shack. When I, as a viewer of this highly disturbing subject as a story, am thinking of better dialogue, scene breakdowns and wishing that it played out with more emotional responses, then maybe the film could’ve tried harder. I was a bit let down by Room.
Another example of missed dramatic opportunity is with William H. Macy who played Larson’s dad. Let’s gloss over the fact that her parents haven’t seen her or even knew if she was alive for 7 years, because the film sure did, but now Macy is shown in one scene (ONE!) that he cannot give himself to accept her son because of the situation in which he was born. Larson tries to make him force him to even look at him but Macy timidly refuses and we never even see Macy again. Not one more mention of him. I thought it was a great plot point to explore that someone of her old life would find difficulty in accepting her son since he was a product of rape but it was just a minor nod to the idea. Why hire William H. Macy to say just a few lines and never give him the chance to truly act out his part? Again, an example of very weak storytelling. Why do we as viewers have to fill in the dramatic holes? It’s like watching the Cliff’s Notes of a real gritty and compelling story. I understand that they are limited to the confines of a decent running time but I feel they dropped the ball on so many great possible scenes.
Overall: A film like this is always tough to critique and by that I mean one that is like 95% approved on Rotten Tomatoes and is greatly critically applauded by so many. Would I recommend seeing Room? Yes. Truthfully, it’s still a good movie but, to me, it wasn’t a great movie. I’m sorry if I like my movies with more effort. Maybe it’s me and that I need more melodrama to hit the messages home. I can’t say it’s my age because most of these critics are older than me but I’m not going to sit idly by and cheer a film like this when I feel like I have a legitimate complaint. Say what you will about how well made Room is and how great the performances are, but I’m sorry, it could’ve been so much better. Is it fair for me to critique a film based on how I thought it should be made? Absolutely. After all, filmmaking is an art form and the very purpose and meaning of art is how it makes someone else feel and if I’m not “feeling” your work then you have failed in some capacity. I’m sick of weak and lame and middle-of-the-road art. Give us the pain, we can take it. Give us the nitty-gritty and the in-your-face honesty.
Another quick example is when the grandmother’s boyfriend brings over his dog for Jack to see. This kid who has been locked away his whole existence should’ve pissed himself with fear at seeing this pooch. Remember three things here: 1. We all grew up way more normal than Jack did and have been eased to everyday common things like dogs. The only animal he’s seen is a mouse that got into the shack and before he could admire the creature his mother killed it, which I’m sure gave him some sort of mistrust of animals and the scene with the dog didn’t have any fear or trepidation at all for Jack. 2. Most of us as viewers lack the credentials as psychologists to know how a boy that’s been living in that strict living of captivity would react to seeing things like dogs so the film could take artistic license with how that scene should play out regardless for dramatic effect. And 3. Who cares if it’s an accurate reaction, make us feel for that boy other than “awww he likes the doggie. Look he’s going to be OK.”
Hate to be harsh but as a fan and student of film, these movies are getting out of hand with the imperfect storytelling. I hope I make some sense in my rant that this socially charged movie didn’t deliver on the emotions for me. Maybe I’m numb inside but probably not.
Case in point, I saw a clip of Larson this morning at the Academy Awards that wasn’t aired on TV of her personally hugging all the sexually abused people that were brought on stage during the Lady Gaga song. As each survivor walked down the stage to leave the auditorium, Brie Larson hugged each and every one. That got me more chocked up than any scene in Room.
Score: 6 “I’m still pissed Mad Max didn’t win Best Picture” (out of 10)