Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room. (George Kraychyk/A24)
Contrary to what most people might believe, the way to get an audience to cry isn’t to overload a film with scenes of misery or gloom. It is the noble emotions that will turn on the waterworks for audiences: kindness, courage and self-sacrifice. If you listen to an audience and hear sobbing and sniffling, it is because those people recognize the traits that people ideally but so rarely possess. Room makes audiences cry, not because of its moments of sadness but because of its moments of hope. This is a film that delves into a situation of utter darkness in order to show just how brave, resilient and selfless people can be.
Room stars Brie Larson – who received acclaim for Short Term 12 and recently co-starred as Amy Schumer’s sister in Trainwreck – as Ma, a young mother who lives in a room with her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). While the film is initially vague about the circumstances under which she found herself confined to a single room, any person with a cursory knowledge of either the news or “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” can figure that Ma was kidnapped and forced to live in captivity, and during the time she was kidnapped and raped, she gave birth to a child.
Most of Room takes place within the area of a single small room, with only minimal space for a bed, a bathroom and a small kitchen. It is what most people would call claustrophobic, although certain New Yorkers might find it spacious. Director Lenny Abrahamson is able to make this enclosed space visually interesting while still maintaining the tense, claustrophobic feel. It is simultaneously home and hell for Larson’s Ma, while Tremblay’s Jack makes the best of his confinement because it is all he has ever known.
The two lead performances in Room are the key to its success. Larson is excellent navigating the various emotions that her situation requires: Despite a situation so dire that any person might be tempted to fall into suicidal despair, Ma must live for the sake of her son, and even find moments of happiness through him. Larson immediately becomes the frontrunner for the Academy Award for Best Actress for this performance.
It is unlikely that Tremblay will have a gold statue to play with next winter, but he may be even better. Larson plays all of the expected emotions beautifully, but the relative familiarity people might have with how a person in her situation might deal ensures that these emotions are what one expects. Tremblay has to focus his performance on uncharted territory. He is a mixture of a feral child and a civilized one, having the influence of his mother and limited television exposure, but nothing else.
Room makes a dramatic turn in its third act, and although it is easy to guess what that is, this review will not offer confirmation. The most that will be revealed is that new characters enter the film’s universe, played by veteran character actors Joan Allen and William H. Macy, as well as Canadian actor Tom McCamus, who despite being mostly unknown to American audiences easily matches Allen and Macy. The scene that provides the critical third-act turn may be one of the most memorable of the year, so laden with emotion that it moved many audience members at a notoriously reserved press screening to tears.
Even though “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” was able to make a similar story into a comedic triumph, Room has a more difficult task, taking the realistic portrayal of a woman trapped against her will for years into one that does not sink into despair. Abrahamson, Larson and Tremblay succeed beautifully at the task. This almost certainly ranks as one of the best films of the year, and undoubtedly as one of the most moving.
In theaters Oct. 16
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