Wednesday, November 25, 2015

'Room' review

Room came completely out of left field at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, but it sure did make an impact at the festival. The haunting and intense drama, which stars Brie Larson and young actor Jacob Tremblay, garnered immediate critical acclaim and injected itself as the indie, offbeat choice for the Oscar race. Now on every awards list, Room has slowly become one of the fall's must-see movies. I always maintained some level of skepticism for the film, simply because I really wasn't a fan of director Lenny Abrahamson's Frank. Having now seen the film, I can certify that I was both right and wrong. Room is an immensely moving film led by two phenomenal performances that, in the end, fails to come together in the way that it should. It will definitely please audiences looking for a challenging fall pick, but it isn't nearly as captivating as it should be.

For seven years, Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) has been imprisoned in a single, solitary room. With only one window to the outside world, Joy has been raped and beaten by a creepy man known only by the name of Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) for years. However, Joy is kept alive by the company of her five-year old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). For years, Jack is raised without any contact with the outside world, and in his view, there is no world besides the room that he and his mother live in. Joy, often called "Ma," and Jack live together for five years before they hatch a plan to escape. Once they re-enter the real world, Joy and Jack re-accustom to life with her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) as they deal with the guilt, loss and sheer insanity of moving from life in a confined space to a wide world of danger and happiness. 

Room is one of those weird movies where there are two very distinct halves. The first half takes place inside the limited space of the room, and the second half displays the jarring change that Joy and Jack experience when they enter the real world. And I think that the fundamental problem that Room runs into is that the two halves don't gel together. There are two movies fighting each other in here and neither one comes out on top. The scenes in the room are claustrophobic and grim and the scenes outside of the room are bright, but exceedingly depressing. Larson and Tremblay are good enough to almost carry the movie to extraordinary success, but the second act just didn't work for me.

I've been trying to put my finger on why I walked away from Room compelled, but unsatisfied. On a performance level, it is phenomenal in every way. Brie Larson is currently Gold Derby's 11/5 favorite to win the Best Actress Oscar and there's good reason for it. We've heard the terrible kidnapping stories on the news before, but I don't think I've ever seen a motion picture or an actress capture it with such vivid detail or intensity. You can see Larson trying to be a rock for her young son, who knows nothing about the world, but at the same time, she's completely falling apart. And even after they leave the room, Larson perfectly captures what it'd be like to leave a life of captivity and re-enter the world. While I disagree with some of the directorial and screenplay choices along the way, Larson is consistently mesmerizing.

The same can be said for Jacob Tremblay, who is without question the film's breakout star. Tremblay is a natural actor and is captivating whenever he's on screen. Under a mop of hair and a sweet attitude that goes dark at times over the course of the film, Tremblay captures what it would be like for a kid to grow up without knowing the world, before being thrust into a crazy universe. This performance is much less likely to gain awards attention, but with Tremblay and Beasts of No Nation's Abraham Attah, it's clear that child acting is getting much better.

In addition, the supporting cast is very strong. Joan Allen doesn't arrive on the scene until the second half of the film, but she does spectacular work with what she's given. Her performance as Nancy, Joy's mother and Jack's grandmother, is tender and heartbreaking, and there are times where she almost steals the movie. Sean Bridgers is appropriately terrifying as Old Nick, Joy's creepy captor. Their relationship is quite fascinating and I sometimes feel like an examination of the dynamics between the kidnapper and their victims would have been more interesting. And finally, William H. Macy pops in for a quick scene as Joy's father and does some good stuff, but I feel like he wasn't served well by his character.

Lenny Abrahamson doesn't have a ton of experience as a director (he only has a few indie credits to his name), so he definitely reached for the sky with Room. And for the most part, he does a pretty fine job. During the scenes set inside the room, you feel the claustrophobia and it's unsettling to say the least. Once the action moves from the room, I felt this odd sense of relief. I felt like I could breathe again. It was a very, very bizarre moment and one of the most oddly moving things that has happened to me in a movie theater this year. But the one problem is that Abrahamson's direction still has this faux-indie stylistic quirk that becomes so incredibly annoying. Close-ups on small items, forced voiceover- it all feels cliched at this point and there was something that was off-putting about Room at times.

And despite how beloved the source material is, I still think that the screenplay lets the movie down. There's no suspense to the second half of the movie, and worse than that, there's nothing of intrigue or interest on screen. Jack's escape from room is such a magnificent scene and such a finely executed setpiece that the movie simply can't recover from it. The second half of the film bounces around from subplot to subplot, without much focus. In its essence, Room is Jack and Joy's story, but when the film splits them apart, it doesn't know which character to focus on.

Is this the story of Jack's entry into the world? Is it about Joy re-accustoming to life after being captured in a room for years? Or is it about the impact that this all has on her family? Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donaghue might answer "Both" but the problem is that having all three stories going on simultaneously becomes difficult on a tonal level. And tone is a big problem in Room, as this is a movie that struggles between being deeply depressing and extremely pessimistic. I know that this is meant to reflect the mental state of the characters, but for me, it made the film much less enjoyable.

Ultimately, Room is a film that I didn't particularly like, but at the same time, I have a deep respect for the filmmaking behind it. It is relentlessly downbeat, and at times, the film almost slows to a complete stop. Larson and Tremblay are magnificent and the film has moments of brilliance, as well as surprising emotional poignancy. But there's something missing from Room- a deftness of touch, a more compelling visual palette, a stronger sense of urgency. The injection of any of those elements would have made this decent film turn into the masterpiece that it had the potential to be.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.8/10)

Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter, Business Insider, The Film Stage, Joblo

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