Room (2016)

Warning: While this review doesn’t contain explicit spoilers, it does discuss elements of the film that are revealed in the trailer. However, for optimal viewing enjoyment, I would strongly encourage you to watch the film blindly (i.e. sans promotional trailers) and then traverse back here to catchup on my adoring writeup for this powerful gem of a film. 

Room is an unsettling psychological nightmare that will hit audiences hard because its fiction feels all too real and horrifyingly possible. Lenny Abrahamson’s heartbreaking feature tells an authentic love story. One that accurately depicts that kind of raw, sacrificial love that can only exist between a parent and their child. This love, is a primal, instinctive love that has the power to overcome the extreme wickedness of humanity and can provide hope in even the darkest of places.

The film is based on Emma Donoghue’s award winning novel, which itself was inspired by the chilling crimes of psychopathic Austrian Josef Fritzal, a man who imprisoned and sexually abused his own daughter for 24 years in his cellar. While the subject matter is as bleak and harrowing as it gets, let me assure you that Room is by far one of the most empowering and inspiring love stories you will see at the cinema.

Told almost entirely from the perspective of a 5 year old child, the film is divided into two very distinctive stories. The first half shows life on the inside. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and Ma (Brie Larson) are held captive by a sexual predator in a tiny confined space that they call “Room”, but despite his dire living circumstances, Jack’s world is one of inquiry, creativity and wonder thanks to his mother. Despite the sexual abuse that she still endures, Ma artfully shields her son to establish and ingrain some sense of order and normality to Jack’s world. Room is filled with the same kind of boundaries, routines, chores, games, exercises and activities that every child must have and Ma’s burden is mighty. To Jack, there is nothing else outside of these walls. There is only this playgrounds that he calls “room” and Ma is the rock that holds it all together. Somehow.

Abrahamson and director of photography Danny Cohen wisely avoid overstating the imprisonment by making deliberate lighting and camera choices that make Room feel somewhat warm and homely. Despite its limited spatial dimensions, the audience is never made to feel suffocated by claustrophobia and confinement. This is a vitally important decision that gives their eventual quest for freedom all the more impact. For when the opportune moment for escape does finally present itself, you’d best be prepared with ample tissues.

I don’t say this lightly, but Jack’s attempt to escape and liberate himself and his mother from their shackles is hands down the single best sequence out of any of the Best Picture nominees this year. Aided by This Will Destroy You’s optimistic, slow-building anthem “The Mighty Rio Grande”, the scene is a perfect example of the absolute power of cinema. There is nothing more satisfying for this reviewer then when image and sound combine flawlessly for maximum dramatic effect. This scene is one of those times.

The second half of the film focuses solely on acclimatising Ma to the outside world, as well as introducing it to Jack for the very first time. It’s also the direct antithesis to the first 50 minutes.

Donogue’s writing and Abrahamson’s direction ensure that the remainder of their picture steers clear of dramatic clichés and easy resolutions. Life outside of room is fraught with anxiety, chaos and disorder, as their liberation doesn’t necessarily equate to freedom. The camera still remains locked on Jack and his ever-widening perspective, but the scenes turn largely episodic and shambolic.

Ma’s spiral into post traumatic depression is unsurprising given the years that she spent convincing and educating her son into accepting an (understandably) inaccurate and distorted worldview, only to have to undo all of her painstaking work. Brie Larson who turned many heads with her phenomenal work in 2013’s Short Term 12 delivers yet another magnetic and layered performance that is truly inspirational as a child-woman forced to rapidly mature in such deplorable and unconscionable conditions. Larson is more than deserving of the Academy praise she will no doubt attain in a few weeks time.

The real star of the show, and what will be recognised in years to come as one of the greatest Oscar snubs of all time, is the revelation that is Jacob Tremblay. The 9-year old delivers an astonishing and impressive turn that feels as true and authentic as his supremely talented co-star. Each time the child reveals a hopeful smile or a loving word or gesture towards his mother, Abrahamson’s decision to present the events strictly from Jack’s worldview is more than justified. Also of note is the duo’s natural chemistry, connection and dependency upon one another that feels both deeply convincing and devoid of any sense of fallaciousness.

I cannot speak more highly of this film that is without question my pick for Best Picture. This is affecting, life-affirming cinema that highlights how resiliency and optimism can somehow overcome the odds in the face of such unthinkable inhumanity and evil.

This is required viewing.

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