Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, February 8, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Room (2015)

Room” is the little movie that could at the Oscars this year. A small independent production lacking any major stars, a bevy of rave reviews and incredible hype for Brie Larson has lead it to a number of nominations in major categories. On one hand, it’s always fun when a smaller picture receives major attention. On the other hand, the cynic in me wants to declare movies like this as the Token Indie Film at the Oscars, manipulative and maudlin. “Room” is even based on horrifying real life crimes and a best-selling book, setting up certain expectations. I can’t do that this time. “Room” made me cry like a baby and is a powerful, beautifully executed picture. 

Ma and Jack live in Room. The two live in a small shed, with a rickety fridge, a static-y television, and a cabinet as its only amenities. Seven years ago, Ma – whose real name is Joy – was abducted by an older man, who has been keeping the girl as a sex slave. Jack, her five year old son, is the result of these assaults. In order to save Jack’s sanity, Joy has taught the boy that the shed they inhabit is the only place that exists in the world. Not long after the boy’s birthday, Joy devises a plan that allows them to finally escape the ugly situation. As challenging as that is, re-entering the real world proves even more difficult.

“Room” is obviously inspired by real life abductions like the Ariel Castro case, the kidnapping of Jaycee Lee Dugard, or the Fritzl incident. (Emma Donoghue, the author of the original book and the screenwriter of the adaption, cites the latter as a direct inspiration.) Most films about such a story probably would have focused on the horrors of the situation. “Room” sidelines the exploitation and terror. Joy’s repeated rapes by Nick occur off-screen. We only see the aftermath of the hideous abuse, such as her teeth falling out or bruises around her face. Ultimately, “Room” is not about how awful Joy and Jack’s situation is. Instead, it’s a story about reintegrating into the world, surviving the trauma of such an ordeal. Not that “Room” ignores the abuse. The first half of the film seems all too plausible, as stomach-churning as the best horror movie. As Jack attempts to escape, the audience is fully immersed in the film, on the edge of their seat with suspense.

Though Brie Larson has (rightfully) received praise for his performance as Ma, Jack is actually the lead character in “Room.” His narration often greets the audience, describing the world of Room in unique, initially confusing terms. As he escapes the tiny shed, he begins to describe the outside world in equally broad, undefined ways. More than once, Jack asks his mother if they can return to Room, to the only life and home he’s known up to this point. These are bracing moments, the boy forcing his mother to think about the hellish situation she’s just escaped. Watching Jack discovering the joys of a normal life, playing with a neighbor’s kid or the dog he’s wanted for so long, is incredibly touching and powerful. Jacob Tremblay is a revelation in the part, riveting and totally compelling.

Joy, or Ma, has a hard road to travel. Brie Larson is in the difficult situation of playing a woman who has to present one face to her son while feeling something entirely different inside. She struggles to keep the boy happy, healthy, and occupied, doing everything she can to hide the ugly truth from her son. Once outside, Joy finds it difficult to re-adapt. The constant media attention is hard to weather. An interview with a reporter, who seemingly asks the most painful questions, induces some squirms in the audience. Her own mother’s attempt to normalize the girl upsets her. Moreover, Joy wonders if she’s done the right things as a mother. Larson is impressive, giving a multifaceted performance, struggling in ways both visible and unseen.

Director Lenny Abrahamson most prominent previous credit is “Frank,” a surreal comedy very different than “Room.” Sometimes, Abrahamson’s commitment to keeping the story grounded and gritty leads to some overdone direction. There’s a handful of moments where the camera shakes and shutters. However, Abrahamson cleverly utilizes different lens and angles, making small spaces look bigger and bigger spaces look smaller. Room becomes an inhabitable world for Jack while the outside world becomes more prison-like for Ma. These same techniques often make a real truck look like a toy, projecting its young protagonist’s child-like world view. Abrahamson also frequently shoots from a low angle, reflecting a little boy’s perspective of the world. The use of color, where bright clothing or objects stand against desaturated backgrounds, also reproduces a child’s viewpoint. While I’m not a fan of every decision he made, Abrahamson definitely creates an impressive visual world with “Room.”

A sharp supporting cast includes Joan Allen and William H. Macy, as Joy’s put-upon parents. “Room” is powerful, showing the struggles and pain of people surviving a torturous scenario. It made me cry a bunch of times. It also creates a sense of catharsis in the end, Yet the film isn’t manipulative or cheesy. Instead, it mines honest emotion and strong performances to tell a potent story you’re unlikely to forget. [9/10]

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