TIFF ‘15: ‘Room’ an affectionate, impeccably performed family drama

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Room
Written by Emma Donoghue
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Ireland / Canada, 2015

Following the quirky yet deeply satisfying Frank, director Lenny Abrahamson brings us a wholly different cinematic entity with Room. Brie Larson (Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now) and Jacob Tremblay (Before I Wake) suffuse the screen with tenderness as a mother and son who are held captive. As seen through the lens of the child who has never known anything beyond the small space they share, Room is a turbulent, albeit affectionate, journey that magnifies an interior struggle to make sense of a traumatic reality.

Larson and eight-year-old Tremblay channel an authentic connection laced with desperation and perseverance in this adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s book of the same name. (She also penned the screenplay.) Larson further proves herself to be an actress of great range and magnitude, layering her performance as Ma with a layer of sobering torment. Her complete disenfranchisement and loss of social identity is present in her every move. Some of the strongest moments in the film’s first half are when Larson lets the strain of the years show. She has days where she just sleeps, buckles under the weight of not being able to talk with someone of the same intellectual stature, and with her weary eyes, pines over the things that she cannot tell her son about. Her captor, nicknamed Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), is a man who doesn’t want to know her, nor does she want to know him. In no way does she imbue Tremblay’s Jack with the sense that Old Nick is his father or anywhere near someone he should admire. Physical and sexual abuse permeate the margins of the film, but are shown in veiled outbursts as Ma attempts to keep her son out of Old Nick’s sights entirely, so that Jack can hold onto his good-natured illusions about life in the room. There are inanimate objects inside the room that he imagines as animals or people he’s gleaned from books and television, but the knowledge that an unexplored universe lies outside is withheld from him.

Tremblay is precocious and defiant, and finely distills affection for the attachments that give him comfort. More than just a child actor rattling off his lines, his wide-eyed engagement with the camera helps to make Room so emotionally embraceable. Jack’s life is an abstraction that fills in the gaps of logic with innocent inferences. From the standpoint of defending Ma’s need to protect him from their grim situation, Room keenly touches upon the sensitivity of Jack’s naivete as a strength, and not with abject pity. This is not a showpiece about cowering in fear, but surviving in spite of atrocity. Both Larson and Tremblay are able to elicit great sympathy in portrayals that will go down as two of the most significant of the year. The film borders on being saccharine at times, but always veers back to an austere assessment of relationships born or rearranged out of deprivation. There are lines here and there that some may chuckle at, but by and large the dialogue is starkly framed with the knowledge that there are innumerable people held in domestic captivity the world over. It has been well-publicized phenomenon in recent years, and Room conveys the concept’s terror with a profound sincerity.

There is a turning point in the movie that shifts the plot’s priorities, at which point, Room becomes just as much about how people start to slowly eke out an existence following prolonged suffering as it is about the imprisonment. The gradual nature of the healing process is respected, and tests the viewer’s patience. We are left to wallow in the loneliness and mental chaos of the aftermath, but are better served for seeing the true cost of what has transpired. Room is a claustrophobic tale of stolen time, but its explicit insistence that we look beyond the sensationalism of the headlines to see the lasting damage and the worthiness of bonds that are able to withstand such misery is poignant and remarkable.

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