In case you’ve been wondering where this year’s case of the feels was hiding in the Best Picture nominees, look no further. Room may be one of 2015’s lesser-known films, between a smaller scale plot and the very limited release, but it’s undoubtedly among the best you’ll see this season. While neither the 2010 Emma Donoghue novel nor this film adaptation is technically a true story, inspiration was certainly taken from a number of real cases with a horrifyingly similar formula. The story of a woman in captivity for years and years is sadly one that we’ve heard several times. This unique and complicated terror, backed by some incredible acting, complete the most emotionally captivating film of our current award season.
Brie Larson has been a considerable front-runner for every available Best Actress this season, and I finally know why. The fact that I’ve now seen zero of her competitors makes my current vote completely meaningless, but I can say just how excellent she was and how unsurprised I am by the recognition she’s received. It would’ve been very easy to overact in this role, given the obvious circumstances. But someone in this situation, no matter how distressed, would have some kind of routine just to make it from one day to the next. And that’s the first thing we experience in Room. The movie is almost entirely from Jack’s perspective, so our first impression of Room itself isn’t one of a prison. It’s home. Larson is even credited as “Ma”, instead of her real name “Joy”, to make the point of view decision even more apparent. At first, clever directing establishes the setting in such a way that the place doesn’t even look so small. Our common sense as an audience does prohibit a full immersion into the mind of a naïve child, but the filmmakers manage to hold back our horror just enough to let the place sink in before slowly pulling back the curtain. Over time, through Larson’s subtlety, we learn more and more about the harsh reality of their situation. Her character felt as real as anyone I’ve seen in theaters, without sacrificing an ounce of gut punching emotion that you’d typically see from the more in your face tearjerkers.
Whatever subtlety is difficult to capture for an adult in this role, multiply that by whatever you need to in order to estimate the difficulty of this task for a child actor. Jacob Tremblay’s full-length feature film debut (I’m choosing to overlook his supporting role in “Smurfs 2”) is going to make him a very busy young man. In the first act, he is able to become someone who we believe has never seen a single thing outside the walls that hold him captive. And that’s the role at its simplest stage. It’s difficult to define spoilers as far as Room is concerned, so proceed with caution? Some of the essential discussions here surround the events that happen later on in the story, so there be spoilers from here on out. But unless something is deeply wrong with you, you at least know they end up getting out. The thing that surprised me is just how much of the movie takes place after the two are home free. It’s roughly a 50-50 split, which takes this film the extra mile. A bare minimum effort with this would still produce a gripping story, due to the given weight of the subject matter. All you’d have to do is drag out the scenes in Room, build up to the climactic escape, and roll credits. That’s a fine movie that may very well earn Brie Larson her Oscar. But that extra mile earns the Best Picture nomination. Layers of complication are added to this story as we watch both characters stumble into the real world after living in a world of their own for so long. In lesser movies, that’s an epilogue. The book does this as well, so I suppose most of the credit is aimed there. But for the sake of a movie review I’ll obviously give credit to those responsible for the adaptation.
The third act of Room allows us to see the different challenges each character faces when introduced/reintroduced to society. An average audience’s first thought gravitates towards Jack, a boy who has never even lived outside of an 11x11 shed. The potential damage that lifestyle could do to a five year old in such a crucial developmental stage is both unpredictable and frightening. But Room avoids the temptation of both an outright disaster and an improbable fairy tale as Jack’s transition unfolds. We see the initial social barrier. He only speaks to his mother for some time before acknowledging other family members or friends. But we also see a gradual love and appreciation that he has for the vast new world around him. Diving deeper, however, this transition is in some ways even more difficult for someone who experienced the real world for seventeen years before having it stripped away from her. When Joy looks at the picture of her and her high school friends, she shows us what missing the valuable 18-24 years of age does to someone. And she says it all without actually having to say anything. A more on the nose script and performance would’ve included a line saying something along the lines of, “I can’t believe everything I missed…and 18-24 of all years.” And that would’ve been fine. Not having to say that is how you win Best Actress.
The pivotal scene, for both the actors and characters, comes when Jack asks to visit Room. Joy doesn’t know whether or not he wants to return or say goodbye, and neither do we. This scene basically decides whether or not, despite their literal escape, Jack will be trapped in Room forever. It also determines whether or not Joy will be able to live with her past, in many ways deciding whether or not she’ll be stuck there forever as well. Larson’s face hangs between a thousand emotions. There’s the obvious pain that comes with seeing Room again, the urge to leave as she can’t even make it past the doorway, and even a buried sense of nostalgia as she watches Jack say goodbye to everything he grew up with. Not even audibly saying, but silently mouthing “Goodbye, Room” so that only she knows it is an exclamation point that concludes arguably the greatest performance of 2015. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I would go so far as to say their emotional states hinge on when Joy asks Jack if he wants her to shut the door. That may have settled him back in, recreated her prison, and left them both spiraling as they returned to their new home. He says no, symbolically accepting that this isn’t his life anymore. That scene, in its own way, packs as much of a punch as the more obvious climax when Jack escapes. Again, maybe that’s overthinking it, but it’s a credit to a subtler climax that can leave someone thinking so much about it well after the fact.
This did read a bit more like a book club discussion than it did a traditional movie review but, as mentioned earlier, complicated is the one word I would use to describe Room. And you can’t do these nuanced performances any justice without walking through some of their more pivotal moments. One could argue that the acting awards will honor the movie enough, but this year everyone’s a player. I can’t rule any one film out of a miracle Best Picture run. Room was certainly among the best movies I’ve seen this year, and just about everyone who has actually found a time and place to watch it have agreed. I would strongly encourage the many people who have not seen Room to make time and find it in case you’re ever in need of a soul, a cry, or just a great movie.