Room may well be the most moving, intimate, emotional and gut-wrenching mainstream film this year. It’s tender, sweet, tense, wondrous, lyrical and biting—all at different times. Featuring a shattering performance by Brie Larson (pretty much a shoo-in for Best Actress) and directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Frank), this accomplished film seemed to come out of nowhere and has arrived as a fully formed, mature work of art.
For those who don’t know the story, (major spoiler alerts ahead), the film throws us into the middle of Ma (Larson) and five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), kidnap victims held hostage by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). The film’s beginning is nearly as shocking as seeing Meryl Streep’s tear-stained, tortured face at the start of Kramer vs. Kramer. The reality of the situation is stark, and it takes us a while to orient ourselves to this reality.
But this is not another film about escaping physically. They do get free, or at least they are freed from physical captivity. But the second half of the film is about the thrilling and painful adjustments to “normal life” once Ma and Jack are back “home.” The world is huge and colorful for Jack, but he has his own games and securities that he developed in “Room,” all which demand adjustments in the big, bright and loud world.
Ma’s journey is a different story. She has had to hold things together in “Room” for her son, and sometimes it has clearly taken everything she had to stay mentally and physically strong for him. Now back at her childhood home, she is at times angry, confused and hurt at some of the changes in her family, and her decompression can be unnerving to watch and experience.
Larson has gotten most of the attention here, and deserves it. It’s that career-making performance for this child actor with lots of credits, but who hasn’t had a breakout role until now. Though I think that Saoirse Ronan’s performance in Brooklyn is somewhat more accomplished, Larson’s hyper-realistic style (think a younger Julianne Moore) and opportunity for big moments will put her into the winning column for the Oscar.
Her work is nearly equaled by an astonishing performance from young Jacob Tremblay, who here makes the best possible case for bringing back the juvenile Academy Award. He is extraordinary. His character is a real child, with sweetness leavened with attitude. It’s the best child performance since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.
Behind these two performances is the strong hand of Lenny Abrahamson, who created a personal film unlike any other this year. One rarely has the feeling that a film is exactly the one the director wanted to make, but this assured film seems the result of a director who knew what he was after, and got it. The camerawork, the performances, the music—these all combined to create a cinematic vision of an unimaginable journey, filled equally with pain, joy, agony, and hope.
Room is more than a story of a kidnapping, or even of the challenges of making adjustments to freedom. It has moments of such pain that we can barely stand the experience, followed by images, music, and perspectives so transcendent that we look anew at the world we’ve gotten so accustomed to. The sum of Room’s parts is enough to earn one’s great respect. But beyond its constituent parts, its overall effect is touching, occasionally heart-stopping, and, if you allow it, transformative.