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Irish director Lenny Abrahamson clearly has a penchant for confining his actors to tight spaces — Michael Fassbender within a large fake head in Frank, and now Brie Larson and her little son to a 10-by-10 shed in Room. The result is rather better this time around, as this adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s celebrated 2010 novel, with a script by the author herself, is involving and moderately heartwarming here and there, even if doesn’t reach the higher levels of psychological insight and emotional profundity to which it aspires. Strong performances by Larson and young Jacob Tremblay as a mother and son held captive for years, as well as the book’s reputation, will provide a certain art house draw, more among female viewers than men. But the claustrophobic and upsetting nature of the material will be a disincentive to many.
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Donoghue’s book was able to make much more of the notion that, for five-year-old Jack (Tremblay), there is no world other than his mother, the objects in the messy, one-room hut to which they’re confined and what he knows from children’s books and television. Twentysomething mom Joy (Larson) maintains a certain discipline against extraordinary odds, limiting TV time, doing a bit of exercise and so on, but the circumstances are dire, and little Jack, who looks like a girl with his brown hair hanging below his shoulder blades, must nightly endure the sounds of Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) creeping into the shed and making weird muted noises in bed with his mother.
As the extent of their shared creativity can’t be nearly as fully expressed in the film as it is on the page, the effectiveness of the film’s first 50 minutes rest on Abrahamson’s ability to keep things interesting visually within cramped quarters, which he does reasonably well while working in widescreen, and on the intensity of the complicity between the two characters, which is strong and credible.
Entirely deglamorized and festooned with pimples and straggly hair, Larson’s Joy seems remarkably sane and emotionally steady under the heavily depressing circumstances, a tribute to her single-minded maternal devotion, even if she sees no hope of their situation changing. She is, in fact, an incredible mom, teaching her sponge-like son a good deal even if he doesn’t believe there’s an actual greater world out there; “I can’t see the outside side,” as he eloquently puts it.
Clearly the victim of kidnapping and ongoing rape, Joy has had no luck at escape in the past; she and Jack are locked in by a door code, and the only window is a skylight too high to reach. But finally, trying a bizarre scheme, there is success, which allows for a momentary deep breath.
The emotional dynamics of the second half change significantly but are at times equally depressing, especially because some of the adult characters introduced are so unnecessarily selfish and uncomprehending, but also because of the banality of the milieu that now surrounds Jack. After a hospital recovery period, mother and son move into the home of Joy’s mother (Joan Allen), although it’s news to Joy that her mom and dad (William H. Macy) have divorced and mom is now living with a new guy, Leo (Tom McCamus).
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Timid and uncommunicative at first, Jack eventually displays the resilient coping and adaptability skills of children, which are far greater than those of grown-ups; at a certain point, Joy simply collapses. The latter is not helped by the behavior of her elders, which initially swings between uncomfortable stiffness and ridiculous arguing, and is later exacerbated by a misguided decision to earn some much-needed money by giving an exclusive television interview.
Some tender and insightful moments eventually ensue, particularly from some nice work by Allen (sorely missed in good roles on the big screen of late) and McCamus; especially nice is a scene in which Grandma cuts the boy’s cascading hair. On the other hand, the reaction of Macy’s character to the course of events is all but inscrutable, leaving a sour taste.
The eventual emotional transformations are low-key rather than cathartic — overall, the film provides more in the line of minor insights than it puts the viewer through the wringer on anything resembling the level of what the characters endure. Overall, it’s a decent shot at a tall target, but real credit is due the lead actors, with Larson expanding beyond the already considerable range she’s previously shown with an exceedingly dimensional performance in a role that calls for running the gamut, and Tremblay always convincing without ever becoming cloying.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival (also in Toronto Film Festival)
Production: Element Pictures, No Trace Camping
Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus, Megan Park, Amanda Brugel
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenwriter: Emma Donoghue, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue
Producers: Ed Guiney, David Gross
Executive producers: Andrew Lowe, Emma Donoghue, Jesse Shapira, Jeff Arkuss, David Kosse, Rose Garnett, Tessa Ross
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Ethan Tobman
Costume designer: Lea Carlson
Editor: Nathan Nugent
Music: Stephen Rennicks
Casting: Fiona Weir, Robin D. Cook
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