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Categories: Movie Reviews

Lenny Abrahamson’s passionate survival drama excels mainly because of two stunning lead performances.

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Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, nominated in four categories at this year’s Academy Awards, is about as impressive an acting showcase as is physically possible. With star turns from likely Oscar winner Brie Larson and the incredible (and 8 at the time of filming) Jacob Tremblay, it’s an all-too-rare human drama with pitch-perfect performances that never once lapse in their believability.

What’s scary about Room is that, extreme as it is, its story, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name, is so believable it requires no exposition. We’ve all heard stories of the likes of Elizabeth Smart, who in 2002 at the age of 14 was kidnapped, held captive, and continually raped for nine months until finally being discovered and freed. So when we’re introduced to Joy Newsome (Larson), who has lived in a locked, cramped room for 7 years, 5 with her young son Jack (Tremblay), it’s all too unfortunately clear the situation they’re in.

Unique to Room, of course, is that this time we’re able to see what life is like inside “Room”, as Jack calls it. Decorated from floor to ceiling with crafts and doodles and complete with kitchen and bathroom facilities, Room is about as homely as a prison could be, and it’s immediately clear that what this film will be about is the relationship between mother and daughter – about Joy’s heartbreaking attempts to give her son an upbringing resembling normality. In early scenes in the film we observe in montage the duo’s structured daily routine, with Joy making sure Jack keeps up with his exercise, education and personal hygiene. [Minor spoilers ahead, though the trailer basically reveals the entire plot.]

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Of course, there’s an ominous feeling permeating these opening sequences, and uplifting mother-daughter drama turns tense thriller as soon as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) is introduced. He is, of course, their captor, and like clockwork visits Joy every night to deliver groceries and sexually assault her. Each night, Jack lies petrified in the closet, counting to himself as he tries to fall asleep. These scenes are among the most gut-wrenchingly sad moments in what is an unmatchably heartbreaking experience, and they never feel contrived or exploitative.

The trailer will tell you that, before long, Joy and Jack do eventually escape from their captor, though not without a powerful argument in which Joy tries to explain that no, Room is not the whole world, nor is Old Nick a magical figure who communicates with the beyond to retrieve them food and supplies. This incredible exchange, which challenges not just Jack’s perception of reality but our own, is the single scene that will likely win Larson the Oscar. And the scene in which they escape, equal parts revelatory and terrifying, is one of the few sequences of this awards season to really get me on the edge of my seat.

The second hour of the film is dedicated to Jack’s acclimation to the real world, and Joy’s struggles reconnecting with her now-divorced parents, played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy. This two-act structure gives the film an interesting dynamic, accustoming us to Jack’s childhood existence and then allowing us to observe the world through his awe-stricken, terrified perspective.

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Room really is Tremblay’s film, as he gets what seems like considerably more screentime than Larson. It’s strange that, while Larson has ran a winning campaign as a lead actress, Tremblay hasn’t found much luck in supporting. Looking at who made the cut, he would’ve had a better chance in Best Actor. But the awards aren’t really what’s important, and Tremblay should be proud he put in one of 2015’s best lead performances. It’s astonishing the amount of trust Abrahamson put into this young actor – he gets about half an hour of the film to himself – but it more than paid off. He’s cute without being grating, inquisitive without being annoying, and innocent without being ignorant. This will go down as one of the great child performances.

But Room is all about relationships, and the unbreakable bond between Joy and Jack, and it works best when they share the screen. Where Room most succeeds is in its recognition of the complexity of familial ties, in knowing that nothing is every perfect or easy, but that doesn’t mean family isn’t family. Joy understands this, and so does Jack. As comes with a life after violent captivity, there’s fighting, and screaming, and crying, and pain, and hate, and heartache, but the two are always there to support each other, to provide their “Strong”, as Jack calls it. That’s important. We don’t get characters as layered as these, as flawed yet resilient, all that often.

Abrahamson smartly lets these characters do their thing for most of the two-hour runtime, and as such we’re continually gripped to their emotional arc. There are a few curious stylistic choices, such as documentary-style zooms and slight over-usage of montages, but they rarely break the empowering, tragic spell cast by Larson and Tremblay. Room hardly needed to be a visual spectacle with performances this good.

Room is out now in cinemas. It is nominated for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Actress at this year’s Oscars. 

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

Posted on Jan 18, 2016

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