Introducing his film "Room" for its world premiere at Telluride last night, director Lenny Abrahamson was more shy about sharing details of his project than he was his love of the festival. ("My favorite one in the world," he said with a grin, following up with a joke on how he's probably dead to every other fest now.) In terms of the film, as adapted from Emma Donoghue's novel from Donoghue herself, he did share that the movie was both a love story, and also one about freedom. That's a fairly durable summary, even if these very themes lose their momentum when the film changes its scenery.
"Room" is a movie about the bond of a boy and his mother. They live in a single room, or just "room" as the boy calls it, where they have bare necessities like a toilet, bathtub, stove, sink, bed and each other. When we meet them, this is the life that they don't question. The boy, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), has just turned five. His mother (Brie Larson) keeps him active, and protects him from Old Nick (a very eerie Sean Bridgers), the man imprisoning them.
In this small space, they represent two big ideas about how humans adapt. Jack shows how one can be raised to think the world is massive even in small spaces, but that curiosity can be capped. Even in how kids ask questions often, they understand what is right in front of them. His questions aren't about the outside world, because he doesn't think much of one. He's more concerned with what's real or not, especially considering the images he sees on his limited TV screen, and the books he reads. Larson's Ma, on the other hand, shows how we can be forced to adapt to circumstances, especially when we believe our worth is so minimal, or that we are helpless.
The film uses artistic license to show its abusive domestic relationships. She takes care of the offspring while the man, who holds over her head his ability to pay the bills, etc., is elsewhere. When he wants, she satisfies him sexually. Her life situation is not just a nightmare of gender roles, but an amplification of them. In these scenes, Abrahamson's film is a fascinating examination of these unnatural conditions, and how people are completely contorted by their surroundings. With its soulful performances, the film is equally believable and horrifying, facets that give "Room" a scarring edge. But if Abrahamson's film is during these parts a survival movie of the freedoms that are inherently human, its magic dissipates once the two are eventually rescued, so-to-speak.
Unfortunately, that isn't a spoiler, but an introduction to the main but underwhelming areas this film wants to bounce around, with rough draft ideas told in an overextended amount of time. Civilization turns out to be far less interesting than the room, and Jack and Ma have slow, wishy-washy arcs of reintegration. A film that once felt immediate now wanders; we knew their mental and physical conditions very well in the room, but now it's unclear as to what they are and aren't affected by.
In its second half, "Room" does not successfully evolve with its ideas of family or space, despite the presence of very curious supporting performances from William H. Macy and Joan Allen as Ma's separated parents. Nor does it become more interesting with a sequence about the media sensation, in which "Room" poorly embraces its flatter angle as a kidnapping story. All of these elements push the viewer further away from an emotional standpoint, but we are tethered by its acting.
It should be noted that this story is meant to be from Jack's perspective; that strange aura implanted from the room scenes by Abrahamson can now be found in his focus on a child's recovery from this ordeal, not the mother's. It's a ballsy move, considering the dicey work of younger performers. But when introducing the film and his cast before the screening, Abrahamson spoke with great confidence that Tremblay's work will convince you that actors are born, not made (no abusive conditions needed). Indeed, Abrahamson was pretty spot-on, as Tremblay is a natural in front of the camera. In spite of the stagnant progression that harms the whole film, Tremblay is a focused, strong presence; you do want to observe him and his expanding understanding of the world.
True to how the movie feels incomplete, its cinematography doesn't create a completely stable visual perspective. It sometimes uses point-of-view shots directly of Jack's, sometimes uses regular coverage, sometimes shoots outside of spaces he would actually be able to see, and sometimes it doesn't. There's a missed opportunity for the film to be even more concretely from his eyes, but Abrahamson settles for a sporadic voiceover instead.
But the warmest, and the most lasting memory that I will take from "Room" is Larson's performance. She continues to have a very-welcoming confidence about her dramatic potential; she has the ability to prove plenty to audiences, but never acts like it. And as Ma, she does something magnificent in presenting a person whose self-esteem has been completely carved out, but with a performance that is far from empty. She's an incredibly warm presence, and can be just as animated as her on-screen five-year-old son. Larson crafts a full, human picture of the type of person we'd only know from headlines. And in a fantastic scene in which she shouts at him the true story of how they got into this room, she very naturally raises the movie's human urgency.
"Room" is a special but uneven film. After leaving its microcosm, it owes much of its power to its performances, whose collective presence fills in for a lot of superfluous moments. Aside from love, Abrahamson's vision is assuredly about the freedom all human beings deserve. At the same time, it implies that fictional beings are sharper, and more resonant, by not having a similar free rein.