Room, from 2015, not to be confused with the 2003 cult film The Room.
A couple years ago I happened across the novel Room by Emma Donoghue and avidly read through it in a day. When I heard that there was a film adaptation in the works I was dubious. As much as I loved this novel, I couldn’t envision how it would look on the screen. The novel is from the point-of-view of a five year old boy with the vast majority of it being his own, childish, inner-monolgue. It’s simple enough to get into the head of a child within the expansive confines of prose, but how does one translate that emotional mindset felt by a child to a screen? How does one seperate adult understanding from childhood confusion in a visual medium? Luckily, Room was adapted for the screen by the novel’s own author and directed by the talented Lenny Abrahamson, the man who helmed the delightful film Frank in 2014. Room is a film in the spirit of the award-winning novel and well worth the accolades heaped upon it this awards season. I am still going to say “the book is better than the film,” not only because it is but because of the strong faith I have in the power of the written word. In the nature of film criticism, however, let’s take a look at the film apart from its source material.
What’s Room About?
Room tells the story of Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son Jack. Joy has spent the last seven years of her life confined in a small garden shed, the victim and prisoner of a rapist. As a result, her son from the rapist has only ever known this small room as the entire world. From Jack’s perspective, if it is not in Room, it does not exist, the things that make up the world we know do not exist. After a suspenseful escape and rescue, Jack now has to discover that there is a world, a large and expansive world, of which Room was only a part of, while his mother now has the difficulty of adjusting back to reality and getting her life back on track after a long absence from the world.
The novel and the film both have the same two parts. The first part deals with life in Room, how Jack has come to accept this confinement as normal. The rapist who keeps them there, referred to as “Old Nick,” is seen by Jack as a benevolent caregiver since he’s the one who provides all the necessities in their life, seemingly by magic. The second part deals with Jack’s discovery of the real world and the struggle to acclimate to life outside of Room. Personally, I found the second half to be the most fascinating part, seeing everything world, the things we consider common and banal, as wondrous and confusing oddities. The film seems to share this perspective as well, and does a fantastic job at visually creating that wonder and confusion that Jack must feel.
The Cast of Room
When it comes to the popular review (i.e. Facebook posts and tweets), there are two types of opinions I’ve seen. There are those that highly praise the performances of the entire cast, and then there are those who feel the need to point out “that kid was so annoying” as their chief criticism. It’s my suspicion that those proclaiming the latter statement either have no kids or have not spent a lot of time around young children. Five-year-olds are, “annoying,” that’s just how they are. One of the greatest aspects of Room, both the novel and the film, is how accurately it portrays the mind of a child – and yes, from an adult perspective, it’s annoying. Jacob Tremblay, who plays Jack, is not a five-year-old (he’s nine); he’s not unfamiliar with the profession and, if his performance in ROOM is any indication, he has a a very good future ahead of him.
Brie Larson is amazing in her performance as Joy Newsome, portraying the emotional depth required of the role without stealing the spotlight from the film’s protagonist and narrator. In supporting roles there are Joan Allen and William H. Macy who are always great in whatever they do – Room is no different. It also helps that I think Joan Allen is one of the most beautiful actresses working today, so I would probably praise her in anything (like Death Race, loved her in that). While Brie Larson is the only cast member nominated for an Academy Award, that doesn’t take away from the fact that the entire cast of Room all put in amazing performances. As far as winning that award, Brie Larson is up against some very good competition; I’ve yet to see all those nominated for Best Actress yet, so I can’t make a call on that.
Room is not an easy film to watch. Those who’ve not been involved with children as a parent or caregiver, or those who don’t really like kids, would have a very difficult time connecting with the subject matter. The film presents the wonder of a five-year-old experiencing the world for the first time – but a lot of that understanding, as a viewer, comes from already knowing how children experience the world. A lot of the techniques used to express this may seem flashy to some, and accurate to others, depending on how well they know children. Similar to Linklater’s film Boyhood, Room captures the emotion and moment of childhood, and being an involved witness to the human process of growing up is almost a perquisite. The film’s premise, a woman kidnapped and raped for seven years trying to raise a child, may seem intriguing and even salacious to some, but that’s not what the film is about. Room is, ultimately, a story about how these things are viewed and dealt with by a child. As a parent, films dealing with children and their experience of growing up and learning about the world tend to hit closer to home for me; which is one of the primary reasons I loved Inside Out so much this year, and why I loved ROOM as much as I did. Out of all the films, however, Room is the least ambitious; it doesn’t set out to tell a grand story or make some epic statement, Room simply expresses how a child connects with the world and with their mother. Being so low-key, I feel Room may be overshadowed by the other, louder, nominees. As much as I loved Room, I don’t foresee it winning Best Picture… but we’ll see…