Thursday, January 14, 2016

Random thoughts on Room

What a strange little movie Room turned out to be. While I was watching it last night, I kept thinking: This is pretty good, but it's not quite the masterpiece that the breathlessly gushing critics had led me to believe it would be. Frankly, as much as I admired the artistry of Room, I had a much more enjoyable experience watching Brooklyn the night before.

Then something unexpected happened. I went to bed and spent most of my sleeping hours dreaming about Room. Clearly the movie affected me more deeply than I had realized. If it managed to penetrate my subconscious to such a degree that it dominated my unconsciousness (if only for one night), did that make it a masterpiece?

I'm not sure, but it certainly gave me a lot to think about. Among my still-evolving thoughts on Room:

1) I've seen similar storylines play out in documentaries on the Crime & Investigation Network: Crazy guy keeps young woman locked up in a dungeon for years. But C&I always seems to tell those stories from the cat-and-mouse point of view of law enforcement vs. the criminal, leaving it up to your imagination to re-create the experience of the kidnapping victim.

Room tells the story from the other side, and it's a harrowing tale, less because of the squalor of the physical prison and the lunatic warden than the mental torture they impose. What thoughts must crawl through the mind of someone stuck staring at the same four walls (and tiny skylight) for years on end. Room nails the psychological drama of such an unimaginable predicament, but no, it's not an enjoyable watch.

2) Brie Larson is solid as Joy. (Yes, her character shares a name with the titular character of Jennifer Lawrence's latest Oscar hopeful, the significance of which will become apparent in the next paragraph.) I can't argue with her Golden Globe win this week. Is it an Oscar-caliber performance? I'm not so sure. It's not as if she defines the role in such a way that I can't picture anyone else pulling it off.

In fact, throughout I kept thinking about Jennifer Lawrence. She and Brie are around the same age, and they resemble each other slightly. But my thoughts of Jennifer went beyond the similarities between the two mid-twentysomething ingenues. Room is the kind of dark, edgy fare that Winter's Bone made me believe would become Jennifer's specialty. Then she got sidetracked by The Hunger Games and those self-conscious David O. Russell dramedies. Too bad. Had she been cast in Brie's Room role, her name would be as good as engraved on that Best Actress Oscar for playing a completely different Joy than the one she played in Joy.

3) Solid as Bree is, it's all about the boy who plays Joy's five-year-old son Jack. Jacob Tremblay is a true find. Although he's nine now, he makes a perfect precocious five-year-old, the kind you want to bundle up and cradle. But he's more than just an adorable new face. He pretty much carries the movie on his tiny shoulders. Room is really Jack's story, played mostly from his point of view. I started the film in Joy's head, but I spent most of it in Jack's.

4) In some ways, Room is turning out to be this year's Boyhood: Young actor carries the weight of the movie, and the actress playing his mother gets most of the credit. Sure, Brie's leading role is much larger than the supporting one that won Patricia Arquette an Oscar for Boyhood, but while I wonder what J-Law would have done with this Joy, I'm not sure if Room would have resonated with me had anyone but Jacob been cast as Jack.

It's not just his expressive eyes but the way he handles the dialogue and physical sequences that has me seriously wondering what else he can do. It's the best child performance I've seen since Quvenzhan√© Wallis' Best Actress-nominated one in Beasts of the Southern Wild. She deserved better than an Annie remake as a high-profile follow-up. Let's hope little Jacob gets it.

5) It's so nice to see Joan Allen back onscreen. I wish the movie paid a bit more attention to the mother-daughter relationship between Joan's and Brie's characters. There's a pivotal scene that hints at a rich backstory. None of that past plays out on screen, but what Joan does with the little she's given - her uncomfortable restraint, the way she tiptoes around her daughter, around everyone - made me want to know so much more about her.

6) From a narrative standpoint, my favorite thing about the movie is that the characters don't turn out to be what you expect at all. The build-up to the second half left me expecting one thing, but what plays out onscreen is entirely different. Is it their individual relationships with their mothers or innate characteristics that lead Joy and Jack down divergent paths in this movie about maternal love? Maybe I'll figure that one out tonight in my dreams.
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