Every year, there is a movie that gets released where I simply don’t get it. I simply don’t get the amount of praise it gets away with. It’s never that the movie is out-and-0ut bad, but that the movie doesn’t live up to the overhype of its prestige to me and it USUALLY gets a Best Picture nomination. And it’s usually the darling of a film festival.
Last year, it was the functional Sundance thriller Whiplash took up to be a heavy psychological piece when its leads were too surface to give any internal commentary on their characters.
The year before that, it was the Palme d’Or winning misery of Amour, lifted solely on the power of its lead performances rather than Haneke’s direction or script.
And this year, it is the Telluride horse in this year’s Oscar race distributed by the much-beloved indie company A24 and starring the latest female indie star darling to replace Jennifer Lawrence, Brie Larson. It is the Canadian-Irish-British film Room by Lenny Abrahamson. And it’s reputation well preceded by actually watching it, such being an illustration of how behind I am.
And my word, for such a bleak scenario as a woman who is imprisoned with her son (a child of rape), I was uncompelled. And this is only in recognizing the common consensus that Room‘s first half is indeed stronger than the second half. But of course stating how and why would require SPOILERS, so yeah, there’s that warning. If you haven’t seen Room, it is a much beloved Best Picture contender so the odds are you will love it and I don’t want to be the one who spoils it for you. Please go and watch it.
Like, I stated Room is from the perspective of a young boy, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has spent all of his life behind the four walls of a single room as a companion to her fatigued and high-strung Ma (Brie Larson). It is almost immediately clear to us that Ma and Jack are the prisoners of a man named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who kidnapped many years earlier when she was a teenager and visits constantly to rape Ma. It is a very grim situation – added on by the fact that we can figure out of course that Old Nick is Jack’s father and by the fact that Jack has obviously never seen life outside of these walls at all. So why am I not really moved?
It’s not the fault of Brie Larson, who is probably one of the most intelligent young actors we have in the industry that is able to give her characters a shocking amount of psychological agency even while enduring everything that even Room didn’t underwhelm me overall, she would still be the flat-out best thing about it. Ma is put in a delicate situation of having to keep up with her child’s exuberant attitude, even in spite of her awareness of how awful her life is right now and instead of hamming it up like Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, she attempts to mask her trauma without being less than genuine (even if at moments it is clear Ma as a character is not entirely sincere) and is given several cracks by Emma Donaghue’s script (adapting her own novel) to let out her sneak out a few hints that she’s not ok that are missed by the guileless Jack. This isn’t the first time she’s had to portray this sort of layered thick skin before – Short Term 12 is a more complex performance out of her demanding the same things in a more reserved manner, but when Larson wins the Oscar this year, even when I root for another, I’ll be cheering her on. I mean… even if Lawrence wins the Oscar, I’ll be happy. Dat’s a strong Best Actress slate, y’all.
Jack is not at all the problem either. Jacob Tremblay in the first half of Room is an incredibly charismatic young actor whose fancifulness for the prison he lives in gives the production more of a personality than director Lenny Abrahamson could hope to (though he tries by having cinematographer Danny Cohen get in cramped yet unorthodox angles to give the prison they call Room have some semblance of involvement). And that’s not even counting the bridge between first and second half where Room has to double as a ticking-clock thriller and as singular character drama because…
OK, seriously if you did not heed my warning before, this is your final point of return for Spoilers.
Because Jack escapes Room and has to realize just how much bigger the world is beyond his early life. And the sequence in itself is heart-pounding and exhilarating. It’s exactly the sort of shock to the system you’re expecting Jack to go through as our audience surrogate, so it’s his shining moment as an actor as he decides when to make his move.
When that does happen is when the movie regrettably falls apart and all that Larson and Tremblay still hold onto their characters for dear life don’t make up for how Abrahamson, Donaghue, and the rest of the cast and crew simply don’t know what to do with the movie once it moves beyond Room. The mission statement of the movie is clear from this point on – parallel how Ma and Jack now adjust around Ma’s home and family. Namely in the manner that Ma has baggage with the family, while Jack has an apprehension to the world.
And the film is fine with just letting Larson and Tremblay do every bit of heavy lifting in regards to that. Neither Abrahamson or Donaghue seem to have much material to pry out of the very obvious PTSD scenario, letting things sit for long enough that give away that the two of them are just barely trying to figure out the way to go with the presence of Ma’s mother (Joan Allen) and father (William H. Macy), which only leads to letting us examine Ma’s trauma from the greatest distance possible since suddenly her parents’ feelings are now in the mix. Macy in particular is grievously underused. Had his character simply been a something of a cameo, I’d be able to forgive it, but we’re given very explicit cues to the fact that he’s an alcoholic AND that certain elements of Ma’s situation – namely the presence of a child who is so clearly the product of someone taking advantage of his daughter that he can’t stand seeing Jack and…
… and it goes nowhere. It just disappears. Like the movie wasn’t satisfied with having some guide as to where to go with their characters. It eventually takes hold of Jack when Ma has her own scene blowing up at her mother basically telling us that the movie refuses to dig into the damage of Ma’s previous life and Tremblay does enough to try to keep the movie moving when it lets him on the reins. As schmaltzy as the manner of Jack’s growth of a character is (one involving his association with his first dog), it’s one of the only times the second half of Room can go steady. And yet Room still insists there is more movie to follow on Ma and Jack but does so in the most embarrassingly contrived manner that speed with which it wraps itself up and decides that it’s all done here after it makes a certain decision with Ma’s character is very telling to me.
Maybe it was the overhype. Maybe I came into Room expecting a different movie. Maybe I’m just perplexed. Because there is a lot of good movie in the first half of Room, very moving material, but the fact that it’s fallen apart at the tail end of itself left a bad taste in my mouth, especially with the gravity of its material or the fact that it is one of only two Women’s Pictures nominated for Best Picture this year (how I weep over Carol‘s snub).
Still I can’t say I don’t recommend it. I can’t say Larson doesn’t deserve that gold she’s gonna get. I especially can’t even say Tremblay wasn’t snubbed – he’s head and shoulders above the Best Actor nominees except for maybe Fassbender and don’t give me that Oscar fraud neither. But if I am left stewing over how lazy and unable to stir me Room‘s second half is as a drama, I hope I would not be held harshly to it.