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Room


"This is the story you get!"  So, occasionally,  go the timeless, peremptory final words between parent and child at story time.  In this case, the words are exchnaged between Joy (Brie Larson) and Jack Newsome (Jacob Tremplay), who looks rather like a Jill at first glance.   As it happens, there's an explanation for the boy's feminine appearance, beyond his soft features.  Jack possesses hair that probably has never had the benefit of good shampoo or a pair of scissors during his five years of life.

If you don't know the premise of Room before you sit down in the movie theater, if you haven't seen the film's typical here's-the-entire-plot-in-two-minutes-trailer, you quickly realize that "Room,"  the compact space in which Jack lives with his mother, is the only home the boy has known.  To know that Jack is newly five, as we do by the humble birthday cake (which Jack initially rejects due to its lack of candles) that is baked early in the film, and that "Ma" has been in the shed for seven years requires only a little grim arithmetic to determine how Jack came to be.

Directed by Lenny Abrahmson , Room was written by Emma Donoghue, based on her lauded novel of the same title.   Apparently inspired by the Austrian Fritzl case, the premise is indeed dark.  Joy Newsome has been held captive for seven years in the backyard shed of a man known as "Old Nick" (Sean Bridgers) and serially raped.  What's curious and perhaps ultimately flawed about Ms. Donoghue's story, at least as it is told in the film, is that we do indeed join Joy in the seventh year of her captivity and are never privy to a flashback. 

While we first espy Old Nick from Jack's perspective through the louvered door of his "wardrobe" sleeping place (where his mother tucks him during her captor's visits) the man is eventually seen.  He's not really so old, this Old Nick, Donoghue and Abrahamson wisely presenting him as something of an everyman, as opposed to an obviously loathsome ogre.  The reality is bad enough.  And yet, this first part of the film's story is marked by routines:  Joy trying to entertain, educate, keep healthy and fit her young son, quite a challenge under the dire circumstances.  There are flashes of violence, or threats of violence,  on the occasions when we hear the man sound the password on the electronic keypad and enter "Room."  But even these encounters have an air of  undramatic routine about them, Joy obviously trying to protect her son, having learned how best to placate Old Nick.


It's quite a story that Ms. Dononghue sets out to tell, but there's little indication of revelation or originality in the telling.  Even worse, there's a sense of emotional payoff at film's end that doesn't seem earned.  There is a kind of diligence of research or imagination, an attempt to think some of the physical particulars through.  But the emotional reality of mother and son's captivity and post-captivity stress is presented as a series of almost inevitable hurdles and breakthroughs.   The story is neither organic, nor possessed of the conviction to plumb depths from which it wants to so meaningfully deliver us.  

Connecting the Newsome's captivity as well as the turbulence of their first months of freedom is narration by young Jack, this apparently the main storytelling device in Ms. Donoghue's novel.  Whether in "Room" or without, we hear Jack delineating, trying to make sense of his world, all of this to the cloying accompaniment of Stephen Rennick' s score.  It is in the mix of this neon obvious innocence and the supposed harsher realities ready to assail it where Donoghue, Abrahamson and Rennicks are derailed into a kind of pop psychology mush.  


Lenny Abrahamson and Stephen Rennicks worked together on the director's previous Frank.  There too, both struggled to manage the story's competing tones of precious indie rock retreat with the more serious considerations of mental illness and artistic integrity.  After a rural Irish detour in which Abrahamson veered toward warmed-over Wes Anderson while Rennick's score provided sugary accompaniment, the film regained its fairly singular, saturnine groove.  We leave Frank and his reclusive bandmates playing one of  their more moving tunes (the significant portion of Frank's music to which Rennicks more successfully contributed) in  a lost Texas bar.  With Donoghue's telling, there's never really a doubt that we will exit the story into the warm light of day, hints of darkness present only to provide the more obvious contrast. 


It's a shame that the story of Room, if not its source material, is so dubious.  There is a lot of talent brought to bear that show no qualms about getting dirty.  Mr. Abrahamson is beginning to resemble Clint Eastwood in his directing projects, only as good as the the screenplays he selects, which vary considerably in quality.  He showed himself to be a director of coherence and rigor with the Irish production What Richard Did (like Frank, the only other Abrahamson film readily available in the United States).  That film's story about a well-to-do South Dublin teenager involved in a murder took no shortcuts along its thorny way.  With Frank and Room, he has dealt with writers who don't always demonstrate the ability or conviction to handle the difficult material they've chosen for themselves.

Abrahamson and his cinematographer Danny Cohen gracefully handle the minor magic of the film's captivity section.  Of course, they don't miraculously contract and expand "Room," but they do manage to seamlessly focus or enlarge the perspective.  The focus gives us close-ups of "Ma" and Jack, frank and unglamorous (Jack looks appropriately feral), gives us the laughter, the mother's eyes dilated in loving deception, the boy's in innocent regard for the only universe he knows.  When the perspective changes, we're made to see just how limited and dreary "Room" really is.  There are recurring shots upward toward the shed's sole portal to the outside world, a skylight, impassive as the eye of an indifferent god.

The credibility of "Ma" and Jack, their intimacy and occasional weariness with one another in the limited space of "Room," the mere look of them, certainly goes beyond any feat of makeup or hair styling (and the seeming lack therof).  Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are both quite good.  Ms. Larson has already demonstrated the kind of emotional depth into which we're given unblinking perspective, like that perpetually open skylight in Room.  Such was the case in The Spectacular Now and particularly in Short Term 12 (both from 2013).

Ms. Larson demonstrates the willingness and ability to go wherever asked, to express what she's meant to express, but too much falls upon her here.  Donoghue's story neither shows us the worst of Joy Newsome's kidnapping and treatment over her seven years of captivity, nor has the discipline to make almost tangible what is the cruelest aspect of suffering - that the painful thing, the very bad thing seems like it will never end.

To regard a film like Gett:  The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014), which also shows us a woman stuck in a kind of purgatory or even hell, is to realize what an ultimately tepid piece of work is Room.  Even more than than the film at hand, "Gett" confines itself almost entirely to a single room, a hearing room in Israel where a woman tries with a futility worthy of Greek myth to obtain a divorce in a religious culture where only the husband can approve the dissolution of an unhappy marriage.   While the scenes in "Gett" are relatively brief, while the camera and actors almost never stray from the sterile chamber, we get a sense not only of the husband's intransigence and cruelty, but the absurd and seemingly endless plight of the wife (the formidable Ronit Elkabetz, co-directing and writing, as well as starrring).  It's not the easiest of film going experiences, but that's part of the point. 

Like much about the story of Room, the escape effected first by Jack at his mother's insistence doesn't bear a lot of scrutiny.  Fortunately, that's Old Nick's reaction to the plan.  When Joy Newsome decides the time is finally right to attempt the liberation of her son if not herself, she does so by feinting an illness on the part of Jack.  While undergoing the almost impossible task of altering her son's viewpoint from the lies he has been told to the bleak reality of their confinement - a change in narrative to which he responds with understandable hostility - "Ma" does explain that she once attempted unsuccessfully to knock Old Nick out with the cover of the toilet (explaining why the toilet, which Jack anthropomorphizes like all the other objects about him, has no cover).  After Old Nick refuses to take Jack to the hospital after Joy creates the illusion of fever and grave illness, she then rolls him in a rug prior to Nick's next visit and explains that her son died while the hapless man was out buying medication.  This after a hurried practice in which Jack is instructed how to wiggle free from the rug and leap from Nick's truck at the first stop:  "Truck...wiggle out...jump...run...somebody" is the kind of desperate mantra she repeats.


To consider Nick's predictable reluctance to take Jack to a hospital is to wonder at the boy's delivery into the world.  The implication is that room is the only space that young Jack has ever seen.  How likely would such a delivery - managed by the mother with only her otherwise clueless captor in attendance - occur without complications that would require a hospital stay, or at least the work of a  competent midwife?  Not very likely.  With similar plot convenience, the man who has managed to keep his prisoner for seven years, doesn't verify that Jack is actually dead before driving away in his pickup truck for a place to dispose of the body, never glances through the rearview mirror while Jack his wiggling out of the rug and then standing to leap when the vehicle comes to a stop.  

Abrahamson does handle the brief scene of Jack's escape with telegraphic urgency and even eloquence .  The very sky itself is overwhelming to Jack as he looks up from the truck's bed.  So too the sun, like Old Nick or even the man who ultimately comes to his rescue when he trips to the ground, each is a large, looming, aggressive presence.  There's an effective economy in this scene, distinct from so much else of Room where there is simply a lack of patience or conviction.  Unfortunately, the fact that Old Nick neither attempts to spirit Joy away after the boy's escape, nor do her any further violence is another consideration over which audiences must elide if they are to be carried along by Room's inevitable monorail from darkness to light.  

Perhaps a lesser version than Ms. Donoghue's might see Room end at the reunion of Joy Newsome with her mother and father in a hospital room, presumably the morning after her escape.  Here, briefly, the one instance where Room achieves the sort of power for which it otherwise half-heartedly gropes.  This may be due to the fact that this reunion requires little set-up; this is something we can imagine without being privvy to many details, the overpowering rush of emotion when a daughter is returned to parents who must have long ago assumed her dead.  The strength of this scene also has a good bit to do with the skills of William H. Macy and Joan Allen as Joy Newsome's overcome parents.  Present throughout the second part of the story, Ms. Allen, as ever, a beacon of intelligence, authority and humanity.

Donoghue does postpone her story's relative happily ever after long enough to create an appearance of psychological realism, but the eventual uplift never seems in doubt.  Along the way there are touches of nuance.  Joy's father can't bear to even look at Jack, too troubled by his origin to regard the boy.  With a minimum of dialog and time on screen, this expression of Robert Newsome would seem say much about his character and even what might have separated him from his family in the first place.  Donoghue also demonstrates subtlety with the television interview to which Joy reluctantly agrees.  The female reporter (Wendy Crewson) is all compassion as she preps Joy for the interview and even when her struggling subject breaks down.  Ultimately, the skilled correspondent doesn't hesitate to ask the most cutting of questions even as she maintains an air of parental sympathy.       


Much as it is Jack delivered into a world for which he has no conception, it is Joy Newsome who most struggles when she is returned to a version of the life she had previously known.  She had been told by a doctor that it was good she had gotten Jack out while he was still "plastic."  Young though she might still be, Joy is apparently made of less malleable stuff.  So the young mother struggles with her newfound freedom and her strange post-captivity existence, indoors away from the lurking media.  Joy loses patience, express bitterness at the uneventful existence of women she knew in high school, argues with her mother and son.  And ultimately, there is the most desperate of responses to this post-traumatic stress.  All of this makes sense.   There's little fault to be found with Brie Larson and her fellow actors  (including Tom McCamus as Nancy Newsome's kindly partner, Leo, perhaps most adept at drawing Jack out of his shell).  And yet it's like these actors and this story are being hustled along toward a heartwarming conclusion, lest anyone in the audience grow too restive.


Room might be more worthwhile if it really had the courage to linger in the darkness through which we are so hastily drawn before being delivered into comforting daylight.  If it could begin to give us (mainly men, it would seem) a sense of what it is like for so many women who must walk through this world looking over their shoulder.  It might have been, as Brie Larson has stated in interview, "....a story of love and freedom and perseverance and what it feels like to grow up and become your own person."    But with Room, that is not the story we get.    

Though not quite as risible, Room recalls Roberto Begnigni's Life is Beautiful (1997) in its avoidance of harsh reality just out of sight.  There, at least, there was the excuse, dubious though it was, of protecting a child from something horrible.  With Room, that perspective is reversed.  Through both parts of its story the narration reverts to childlike wonder and the soundtrack to cloying condescension.   The result is the infantilization of all involved, a tendency that American audiences seem all too willing to embrace.  


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