Despite directing a handful of films already, Irish filmmaker, Lenny Abrahamson, didn’t really get the exposure he needed to hit big until last year’s Frank. Granted Frank wasn’t necessarily the biggest box-office hit, it was the critical acclaim and audience word-of-mouth that really put him on the map. He has a new film which is based on the book, Room, by Emma Donoghue. The film is adapted for the screen by Donoghue herself and it has went on to be heavily praised through its various festival runs before eventually getting picked up by A24 Films for distribution.
Room throws us right into the lives of 5-year-old, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson). However, their situation isn’t ideal. They are held captive in a shed by a man only referred to as “Old Nick” (Sean Bridges), and Jack is the result of Ma’s 7-year captivity. To Jack, the only world he’s aware of is the Room and Ma has done everything she can to make sure he doesn’t feel like he’s missing out. However, she decides to take action through Jack’s help and they find themselves free, and Jack comes to experience the world for the first time.
Room is a film that has a lot of things going for it, and the biggest by far are the performances. Brie Larson has continuously been a critical darling with not much going for her in terms of big movies, but it never stops her from giving absolutely everything she has for each performance. Room is no different, and it is easily one of her best. With only a few looks she express so much sorrow, frustration, confusion and helplessness that it almost becomes overwhelming, but in the best possible way. Jacob Tremblay does impressive work considering the layers he needs to work through with his role. Jack needs to feel like what you would see in a child who has grown up knowing nothing about the world, finding out about his situation and the complex emotions that he has to deal with once he is free and out in the real world. It’s tough to tackle, but Tremblay does stellar work and the way he interacts with Brie Larson is undeniably believable. That’s the reason all the performances work in Room if I’m being straight to the point. They are all believable and they don’t cross the line into melodrama. Not that melodrama is inherently bad, but it would have been a disservice to the material here. Another noteworthy performance is Joan Allen, who plays Jack’s grandmother. And again, the way she interacts with Brie Larson for many of their scenes after getting freed feels natural and believable. Other actors like William H. Macy and Tom McCamus do really good work as well.
Lenny Abrahamson is the other element that really makes so much of Room work. Though he does get great mileage from Danny Cohen’s cinematography and Stephen Rennicks’ score. One thing I really liked about his approach to the material was how he dealt with Jack’s discovery of the real world. The first few scenes of him seeing the world for the first time are shot with a childlike sense of wonder and awe, where first glimpses feel so dense that they overwhelm the senses, but they effortlessly capture the feeling of experiencing something big and profound for the very first time. He also manages to bring in some tough questions and ideas, often about parenting, that really make you ponder the complexities of a situation like this and the lack of any real answers.
Unfortunately, despite all these great elements, the film is ultimately stuck with being a good film, not a great one. The problem with the film is mainly my struggle with the entire second half of the film. It feels lost and without much of a cohesive through line. On one hand, it’s brilliant because it perfectly captures the mindset of “I’m free to do whatever I want after being held against my will for so long – but I got nothing” vibe. However, the film doesn’t do anything with it and instead of being a reflection of the characters, the film itself becomes just as overwhelmed with the possibilities with of what to do with the characters post-rescue that it doesn’t commit to any one basic idea or theme. It becomes a series of scenes that are really good on an individual basis, but don’t really add up to anything truly significant or meaningful. I also think the film fails to fully commit to the idea of being completely from Jacob’s perspective. Occasionally a voice-over would pop up and it only came across as tacky and unnecessary, especially given that they only show up a couple times. Then you have something like William H. Macy showing up briefly as Ma’s father who has divorced from her mother during her captivity. He shows up when she is rescued, but is gone and never seen or mentioned again after only two or three scenes. These things don’’t kill the film by any means, but it does take it down several notches and really prevents the film from being something truly special for me.
While I can’t say that I am as impressed with Room as many others seem to be, I still think it’s a worthwhile watch with terrific performances. The film lost me a bit, from a narrative standpoint, in the second half, but it never goes bad enough to detract from some really good filmmaking from Lenny Abrahamson. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay offer some of the more genuine and empathetic performances I’ve seen this year. The film simply suffers from peaking too early and losing some focus toward the end. It probably won’t be a film I find myself seeing again and again or bringing it back when I think of some of the best I’ve seen this year, I get that I will very likely be the minority in that regard. But Room is definitely a film that is worth experiencing. If anything, support it so Brie Larson can be in more movies. 70 / 100