D: Lenny Abrahamson. DP: Danny Cohen. W: Emma Donoghue. Starring: Brie Larson/Jacob Tremblay/Joan Allen/William H. Macy/Tom McCamus/Sean Bridgers. (NOTE: based on Donoghue’s book of the same name)
This year’s Oscar race will be a dense one in the best actress category. Between Saoirse Ronan’s performance in Brooklyn, Cate Blanchett’s performance in Carol, and this performance from Brie Larson it will be a competitive year. This is frankly, exciting! With television becoming the hot place for pithy and complex female roles it is great to see cinema stepping up again. Of course, all the leads are white actresses, but the racial imbalances of Hollywood deserves its own post (or you can simply look at The Hollywood Reporter‘s recent ridiculous justifications for this).
Room is based on Emma Donoghue’s novel with her also penning the screenplay. The novel is told from the perspective of five year old Jack, played in the film by Jacob Tremblay, as he lives in a singular room with his Ma (Larson). Naming all the things around him, he’s nurtured to believe this trap is all that exists. After his birthday Ma decides Jack is old enough to be told about the outside that lies beyond Room and the basic details of her kidnapping by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). This leads to Ma and Jack’s escape plan for getting out of Room.
Donoghue’s script partially replicates this point of view as Jack provides voice-over, lending the audience to understand his wonder at the world and ignorance of it. As he climbs into the wardrobe to sleep and hide from Old Nick during his visits you feel the breath of the novel in the film. The snips and changes to the story work and the second chapter of the pair’s new life allows for great exploration of Ma’s mental state and family chemistry. Larson is given more to work with than the novel, which helps balance her adult trauma with her son’s.
Larson has been steadily working since she played Toni Collette’s daughter on the Showtime series United States of Tara created by Diablo Cody. Her starring role in the indie hit Short Term 12 was memorable and she’s been popping up in supporting roles in films like Trainwreck, Don Jon, and The Spectacular Now. Here she can truly shine handling Ma’s frustrations with her seclusion and repeated violations while also creating a safe space for Jack. Her generic looks allow Ma to remind you of any girl at university you might have known. Larson is all things at once, but with the pure subtly that allows the devastating circumstances of the story to ring true. She is well supported by Joan Allen who does a heart wrenching turn as Ma’s own mother.
I cannot rave enough about Tremblay as Jack who captures your attention from start to finish. He performs little and lives it all. A tracking shot over a truck as he attempts his escape will have you barely breathing for minutes. The camera aligns itself with Jack, not showing things his Ma shields him from. This works to build palpable tension and menace that director Lenny Abrahamson skilfully paces. Known for Frank and What Richard Did, he and cinematographer Danny Cohen build a sense of space and intimacy without merely using intense close-ups on their actors. Their atmosphere allows pain to live no matter the space it is confined to. The film is not trauma as spectacle, but rather as experience of character. Credit must also be give to Stephen Rennicks for the score, its placement lacks sentimentality only amplifying not indulging the emotional register of scenes.
Room has been on the festival circuit and will only reach UK cinemas at the end of January, but releases today in the US. A sure contender this award season it is simply a beautifully made film that joins the ranks of recent superb film adaptations. Hopefully the success of these lower budget films continues and we will see more films like this and less of the typical three act studio trauma sprawls of late.