Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Review: "Room" is an Emotional Powerhouse Experience

Jacob Tremblay
Every now and then, there comes a child actor performance that features inexplicable weight. There are those like Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon or Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th Street where the actor, whether unknowingly or not, captures a certain vulnerability that transcends their singular digit age. It is something rare, and for which almost feels like a revelation each time. Joining the class with one of 2015's best performances by anyone of any age is Jacob Tremblay as Jack Newsome - a boy who has grown up exclusively in a shed that he calls "Room" with his mother Joy (Brie Larson). While the duo produce one of the most emotionally arresting performances of the year, director Lenny Abrahamson's Room is itself a fantastic achievement in capturing the complicated natures of parenting, naivety, and experiencing life for yourself. It's a film that is striking with intimacy and vulnerability the likes of which cinema haven't seen in some time.

Room immediately feels like a "different" movie. As the opening shot pans around the space in which Jack and Joy live, Jack narrates his naive understanding of the world. This room is all that he ever knew. For a considerable period, Jack and Joy are the only characters we see - whose lives seem strangely complacent to the situation. Despite its optimism, the nuances of Jack's strange life begin to create an unnerving quality that elevates once we meet his father, the disowning and negligent Old Nick (Sean Bridgers): of whom is first met from the perspective of Jack's bedroom - a closet. Joy would've escaped sooner, but the room is guarded with a pass code system, and Old Nick is never seen as anything but a brutal control freak. It is slowly that Joy snaps and Jack gets to have that moment of freedom.

What makes the film immediately surreal is that despite its initial limitations of locations, these two characters feel fully realized. Joy is stressed, trying to keep the energetic ball of a 5-year-old from getting the best of her. He constantly snaps at her, accusing her stories of being boring and not allowing him to give into his desire for fantasy. Tremblay's performance is haunting, especially as he gets thrown into a series of situations in an attempt to break free of room. His insecurity and unwillingness feel real despite his slow realization that it's the right thing. Joy, without anyone to ventilate to, is constantly repressing tears and anger as she realizes the flaws of her motherly ways. Contrary to Jack's enthusiasm, her arc is more dealing with the failed parent angle, of which leads her character to some dark places.

It is the impressive writing that inevitably gives the film's gimmick purpose. Once the film progresses to the second act and its characters are free, everything becomes more apparent. Tremblay's performance continues to serve as the powerhouse central to the film as he progresses from reluctant and antisocial to the heartwarming end product. It is during this time that Larson's character is given her due, allowing herself to ventilate and find her frustrations to be both irrational and valid. Larson packs regret into every quivering line and every stare as she sees her son being incapable of being normal. The film's complicated views alone cause the emotional responses to be far more overwhelming and the innocent voice over of Jack's echoing voice that lingers throughout the film resonates into the enthusiasm of a child who's discovered life. It's overwhelming without being manipulative.

Credit must also be given to Abrahamson, who has done a phenomenal job in stepping up his game after last year's enjoyable Frank. With a more assured direction, he makes the experience of Room feel more inclusive. Where a normal director would shoot a scene from the outside looking in, there are shots within Abrahamson's direction that put us into Jack and Joy's perspective, creating some creative visuals that hide information while also implying deeper emotional cues. Speaking as the film is an overwhelming and emotional experience, it takes quite a craft to keep the first portion of Room from feeling claustrophobic and dour. Abrahamson does it well enough that even if the situation remains weird, you're willing to go along with his journey for as long as it takes. It helps that he even adds nuance to the quieter moments, at which point the film manages to find its biggest resonance. 

Room is a film that is definitely hard to fully comprehend, mostly because of how unconventional its subject is. Is it directly a film about victimization, parenting, childhood, or depression? It's one of those welcomed stories that challenges a narrative and forces the viewer to interpret their own subtext while being overwhelmed in the acting. Tremblay's performance immediately ranks among the best child performances in history, being both naive and scarring in ways that aren't often seen. Larson, who has been doing impressive work lately along with Short Term 12, establishes herself as an actress to watch with a role that pits the conflicts that all mothers face in ways that hopefully never have to be expressed in real life. It's a complicated film made better thanks to great writing and direction. It may be a challenging watch, but it's still one that is a miracle for ending up as striking and powerful as it is.

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