Chasing Oscar: Room is a Painful, Powerful Experience

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This next post in the Chasing Oscar series reviews Room, the most devastating Best Picture contender.

Room is the most difficult film I’ve seen this awards season.

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It tells the harrowing story of 5 year old Jack and his mother being held captive in a tiny shed, known to them as “Room”. It’s the only world he’s ever known; he was born in “Room”, two years after his mother was kidnapped as a teenager by a monster known to him as “Old Nick”. Everything he sees on their tiny television, he believes to be make-believe, a fantasy. His “Ma” creates as normal as a childhood as she can for him to protect him from the horror of their reality. At night, she puts him in a closet to sleep, so that he doesn’t witness her repeated rape by Old Nick.

The tiny existence they carve out for themselves isn’t sustainable, after Old Nick reveals he’s become unemployed. “Ma”, after his fifth birthday, shatters Jack’s world, trying in tender but frustrated words, the world beyond their four walls, and the circumstances of them being in “Room”. The two concoct a plan to escape, tricking Old Nick into believing that Jack succumbed to a fatal illness. After a precarious, breathtaking journey outside of “Room” that almost fails, Jack is found, “Ma” is rescued, and they begin their life on the outside, the first time for Jack.

The second half of the film follows mother and son in their difficult transition to regular life. For “Ma”, her real name Joy, the life she once knew is profoundly different; for Jack, it’s a whole new life, period. Both struggle finding their footing on the outside. Jack, more than once, asks when they will return to “Room”. There, he can jump, yell, wail, run remote controlled-cars over his mother’s feet. In the outside world, he takes unsure steps, he whispers and only to her, and resists playing with the mountain of toys he’s received. Joy’s adjustment is more complex, as she awash in feelings of isolation, abandonment, frustration, and guilt, which has devastating consequences.

Room, as a whole, is devastating, like an open nerve that will have you collapse at the lightest touch. The film takes the audience on a journey of overwhelming emotions; aside from the horror, there is the nail-biting thrill of escape, the intense gravity of an expanded world, and the celebration of survival. There were several moments where not breaking down was difficult, weighed down by the gravity of their unconscionable circumstance. There are scenes that can be described as “happy” during their captivity, but you know why they can’t really be. There can be no joy in a situation like this. It’s a marvel of the human spirit that the little family is able to keep it together.

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At the core of Room are two of the year’s best performances, by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Oscar nominee Larson is brilliant. Even with the limited space, in setting and script, to explore her character’s complicated and turbulent emotions, Larson tears through them all with stunning clarity. She balances deep psychological trauma and maternal tenderness in such a brave way that will break your heart. Whatever’s left, Tremblay will shatter into tiny pieces. It is astonishing that the young actor is capable of such depth, especially considering the difficulty of the material. Some expressed disappointment that Tremblay wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor; I find it unbelievable that he wasn’t considered a lead. Their separate performances are excellent, but their scenes together will leave you breathless. They are, without question, the best pair of actors in film this year.

Emotionally draining as it is, Room isn’t perfect. The second half falters slightly, with the introduction of the outside world, and Joy’s parents. It lacks the claustrophobic tension that made the first so uncomfortable and riveting, and starts to detach the mother-son duo we care for so intensely. It’s a rocky adjustment, but Tremblay and Larson keep us deeply engaged. The film is led by Jack’s perspective, and it’s sensitively directed by Lenny Abrahamson, but Joy has been so robbed of agency and dignity, there’s a nagging desire for more of her journey.

Admittedly, it is difficult to assess Room’s chances at the Academy Awards, but it is certainly worthy of its nominations, flaws and all. Larson is a guarantee to take home Best Actress, and that will be probably its sole win. It isn’t easy viewing after all, which might turn away voters. For those willing to put themselves through the emotional wringer, they will be treated to a complex, rewarding tale of survival. That might be just be enough.

Well, that was a lot easier to write than I expected! Four down, four to go! Coming up next is Mad Max: Fury Road (I have a feeling people won’t agree with my take), The Martian, The Big Short, and Bridge of Spies. Keep the conversations going by sharing and leaving your comments. Until next time! – BL

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