There’s been a lot of recent buzz about the Incredible, Show-stealing, Oscar-worthy performance Brie Larson provides in the indie drama Room that is feel does the movie (and the actor) a disservice. I went into Room with sky-high expectations from early word of its soaring virtues, so I was a little let down when I discovered it’s actually a somewhat muted small cast drama, grim in nature, but rarely brutal or affecting enough to leave a significant, lingering impression. Room is a pretty great film, for sure, but its early reputation bills it as so Big & Important that it was more or less doomed to fall short of the mark no matter what. I enjoyed Brie Larson’s wounded-animal performance in the film a great deal, but I find myself a little dubious about the idea that she stole the show. In my mind Room‘s most valuable player is not Larson at all, but instead a young boy named Jacob Tremblay.
In the film, Larson plays a young mother who’s been held captive as a sex slave in a ten-by-ten foot garden shed in a suburban backyard for seven years & counting. Her five year old son, Jack, has never known life outside their single-room home. The movie commands a very direct mode of storytelling that avoids flashbacks or easy answers, gradually filling in the audience on the circumstances of the pair’s captivity without providing much release from the understandably oppressive tone. As you can guess based on the premise, the mother & son protagonists experience levels of boredom & frustration that lead to destructive tantrums far beyond what would typically be described as cabin fever. I will say, though, that although it isn’t quite as light-hearted as narratively similar recent examples of false imprisonment media like Everly or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Room is not all broken spirits & grim yearnings. The film can at times be quite imaginative & uplifting, thanks to young Jack’s warped sense of reality & Jacob Tremblay’s wonderful performance.
Room‘s strongest asset is how it adopts a child POV the way films like The Adventures of Baron Mucnchausen, The Fall, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have in the past. Because Jack has only known life inside Room (which he refers to as a proper noun, like a god or a planet), he has a fascinatingly unique/warped perception of how life works & how the universe is structured. For him, Room is all there is, excepting “outer space” (the outdoors), “the TV planets” (which he believes aren’t real), and Heaven. Jack’s mother is often frustrated with his delusions, like when he asks, “Do we go into TV for dreaming?” but she also uses them to protect her son from the harshness of their severely limited reality. There’s a monumental dramatic shift halfway into Room that undercuts what makes the film special (something I suggest you avoid spoiling for yourself by watching the trailer), but much of the film can be downright uplifting whenever the story is told through Jack’s eyes. Of course, his perspective can also be a downer at times, like the pathetic way he addresses inanimate objects as if they were people (“Good morning, lamp.” “Good morning, TV.” “Good morning, sink.”), but because he’s a five year old boy he also brings levity to the situation with self-satisfying humor about things like poo & farts.
As I said earlier, Room is a pretty great movie. It occasionally reaches some impressive cinematic heights in moments of heart-pounding suspense or in the odd way it makes you appreciate abstract concepts like freedom & external spaces. However, I do feel that a lot of what makes the film special burns out a bit too early in its runtime, especially when it shifts perspectives from Jack’s to his mother’s. Brie Larson was undoubtedly understated & nuanced in her role as a captive mother here, which is admirable, but her character’s emotional crisis often felt like a distraction from what really makes the movie a distinct work in the first place: Jack. Try to temper your own trumped up anticipation for the film & you might find yourself bowled over in a way that I ruined for myself, especially if you can manage to shift your attention from Brie Larson’s lauded performance to that of Jacob Tremblay. That’s where the real magic resides.