September, 2015, Drama

Autumn inevitably brings a spate of more interesting films than those occupying the nation’s theaters during the spring & summer months. (Why producers believe adults aren’t interested in good movies throughout the year is an ongoing mystery to me.) The 3rd quarter also contains a collection of film festivals around the country from large (The New York Film Festival) to small, such as the one that kicked off last night in Aspen Colorado. It began with this Irish/Canadian production based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay. Directed by Irish-born Lenny Abrahamson and starring Brie Larson, Room traces the lives of a young, abducted woman and her son in circumstances of almost unimaginable cruelty. Both are victims of a kidnapper/rapist who’s confined the two of them in his back yard tool shed.

As the movie opens, “Ma” and her son Jack are about to prepare a cake for his 5th birthday. Since the boy has never known anything other than this cramped space he occupies with his mother, the flickering images emanating from an old T.V. and a small slice of sky admitted though a window in the roof, Jack labors under a terribly skewed grasp of the world. As he and his mother suffer repeated, brutal visits from their captor, they create a fantasy world finally shattered by the decision the boy’s mother makes to fake Jack’s death so he can escape and seek help. Room reaches its mid-point as the attempted breakout occurs; the audience at this point has been treated to nearly an hour of excruciating tension intermittently dissipated by the film’s excessive dialogue.

 But now the film’s focus shifts -- from Jack’s adaption to the everyday realities of the real world to his mother’s efforts to rebuild her life and from thereon, Room goes progressively downhill.

It’s the screenplay’s conceit to tell much of this story from Jack’s point of view, through voiceovers he delivers which are dominated by observations Donoghue masks in cloyingly childlike language. As Jack gradually opens up to a world of grandparents, dogs, and kids next door, his mother retreats into herself, demanding that she now become the center of attention. Jack labors on, striving to understand the world of the grownups who surround him who now substitute for his mother. While the movie ends on a happily cautious note, it’s emotional punch has long since drifted away, like the beachfront waves which serve as a backdrop to Room’s final image. 

Ms. Larson, a 26 year-old actress of considerable skill, does a quite credible job of embodying a resourceful young woman inventing motherhood for Jack as she endures the horrors of captivity. But that sympathetic portrait doesn’t generate a similar degree of interest in the post-captive phase of her halting return to the suburban home she grew up in; her character begins well but ends as a far less compelling person than Larson’s talents deserve.

 Eight-year old Jacob Tremblay is astounding as Jack; guileless, full of energy and possessed of all the abrupt inconsistencies of a preschooler, Tremblay breathes a flawless credibly into a character almost impossibly difficult to imagine. Given the brilliance of his performance, it will be interesting to follow the progression of this talented young man’s career. That his voiceover musings often verge on treacle isn’t his fault; that burden belongs to Ms. Donoghue and her soap opera approach to the lessons she believes can be drawn from her plot.

Room also features a quietly understated performance by Joan Allen as Jack’s grandmother and special kudos go to set designer Mary Kaufman, who meticulously conceived a makeshift home prison that wordlessly conveys both a mother’s love and the terror of confinement.

The Verdict? Not nearly the equal of The Wild Child, Francois Truffaut's examination of childhood cultural deprevation - - but an impressive display of acting by Ms. Larson and Master Tremblay.

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