Damaged mother. Check. Precocious kid. Check. Adorable dog. Check. Lenny Abrahamson's Room has all the necessary ingredients to cause the kind of waterworks that might fix Mad Max's little hydration problem. Throw in the traumatizing subject matter, insufferably sentimental music and one faux-happy ending, and you've got the audience winner at Toronto International Film Festival and an early favorite for multiple Academy Awards.
Based on Emma Donoghue's best selling novel, Room explores the rollercoaster relationship between kidnap victim Joy (Brie Larson) and her Samson-haired young son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Both are prisoners in a garden shed outside the house of their captor, a bearded loner named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) who visits occasionally to inflict sexual abuse on Joy and bring them much needed supplies. This is the only world Jack knows, and his mother has fittingly constructed an alternate narrative for him to comprehend such a terrible situation.
In the early scenes there's an unwillingness to shy away from the inherent discomfort populating every corner of the room. Peeling paint lines the walls. A single bed and jaundiced toilet flank what amounts to a small makeshift kitchen. Only a small skylight produces a window into the outside world, which Jack knows as "outer space." Joy accidentally burning toast produces one of the film's most stressful exchanges. There's no escape.
Even though Jack's fragile psyche has been protected behind a fabricated and delusional perspective, the film still forces us to see the pain in Joy's eyes. Larson's incredibly patient and detailed performance carries the first act as a result. At one point she sings a labored version of "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" that is both beautiful and terrifying, a glimmer of hope that defies easy categorization.
Unfortunately, Room dovetails into simplistic melodrama once Jack and Joy are freed from their prison thanks to an elaborate ploy that fools Old Nick. As one would expect, being thrust from a routine of terror into the open world would cause a mosaic of reactions and emotional tumult. Jack's expectedly confused assimilation to a new reality feels rightfully separate from his mother's complex experience trying to cope with the guilt and regret.
Except the film isn't interested in giving these moments space to breathe. In fact, the exact opposite happens; Abrahamson tries to make every single shot feel like a turning point. The intrusive hand-held camerawork and invasive score leave no emotion up to chance, instead communicating an exact psychological framework for the audience to experience.
Similar pandering can be found at the end of Abrahamson's wretched Frank, which attempted to express profound thoughts about mental illness through indie grit. But Room is even more problematic in that it churns hard realities into weepy mush. Joy's unforgiveable character arc late in the film exposes all of the film's worst virtues. Great character actors like Joan Allen, Tom McCamus and William H. Macy are left idling on the sidelines.
Removing the complexity and nuance from Joy and Jack's experience enables the viewer to experience the drama simply and without true measure of the lasting consequences surely at play. In turn, we get multiple statements of solidarity that exist within a space just as fictional as the one Jack grew up with. "No one is strong alone" becomes the film's weighty treatise.
While this may be a strong if not simplistic message, Room, which opens wide in San Diego on Friday, Oct. 30, never truly understands what the words actually mean. Larson's ability to shield her pain is matched only by Tremblay's insistence on addressing it head on. Standing in their way is a director who'd rather paint by numbers than take any chances telling a story brimming with cinematic potential.