Life in Close-up

Film review: Room (Director: Lenny Abrahamson)

By Sascha Krieger

Small, shabby objects in extreme close-up. The camera goes from one to the other. A dreary, place in grey light. A world. This is all Jack knows. He’s just turning four and knows nothing but „room“. When he wakes up in the morning, he says hello to the sink and the chair and the wardrobe and the snake made of eggshells. Outside „room“ there is space, everything else, for example the people on TV aren’t real. Jack lives with his mother in what turns out to be a garden shed in which a man they call Old Nick has held them captive for seven years, Jack of course being the biological son of his mother’s kidnapper and rapist, although she, as witnessed in a memorable scene much later on, is completely flabbergasted at the suggestion that her son might in any way have any relation with that man. The film’s first half depicts life in this miniature world. Brie Larson, who plays Ma whose real name is Joy with a fierce stubbornness and a vulnerable love that justly won her an Oscar this year, delivers a convincing portrayal of a mother who manages to create an environment in which her son can grow up as happily and as normally as possible. Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is subtle and patient, giving the pair enough time to unfold their everyday relationship before us.

The perspective is two-fold: extreme close-ups magnify the size of small, otherwise completely unimportant objects who in the tiny world they inhabit suddenly take on a bizarrely exaggerated significance. Then the camera takes the boy’s point of view, making us see the world with his eyes. Most memorably so when mother and son plot their escape which involves Jack playing dead and being transported on the back of Nick’s pickup truck to what would be a secret burial. Rolled up inside a carpet, Jack for the first time sees trees, houses, streets, a world outside „room“. His incredulity, his sense of wonder is communicated directly to the viewer through a camera eye (Danny Cohen’s photography would also have deserved every single award in the world) that mirrors an untrained eye discovering a world that had been thought to not exist. A world that can be scary and consists of other, wider, friendlier rooms: a hospital room, Joy’s mother’s house.

Tenderly the film depicts mother and son’s struggle to cope: It shows Jack to be infinitely shy at first, unable to communicate with anyone other than Ma before he slowly opens up, connects with his grandma and her boyfriend Leo and ultimately makes friends: with Leo’s dog and then a boy his own age from the neighbourhood. Joy, however, struggles with the demands put on her: an urge to be „normal“, the requirement to be strong for her son. So as Jack – nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay’s subtle, multi-faceted and youthfully enthusiastic performance is unbelievable – begins to blossom, his mother falters and implodes in a bout of depression. Again the tone is unspectacular and matter-of-fact, the everyday struggles just continue. So we see a double tale of growth (Joy was only 17 when she was kidnapped so she skipped the whole adolescence period for which she now pays) unfold quietly, slowly, gently, depited by a camera both sympathetic and objective, a camera that stays close and only stops taking Jack’s perspective as he becomes part of this world.

The attention to detail is tremendous. Take Joy’s father (William H. Macy) who makes a short appearance in which he is incapable of looking at Jack in whom he sees nothing but evidence for a crime. As hard as he tries he cannot embrace the thought of this grandson. The film doesn’t judge him, Macy’s performance is so full of pain and desperation that is response is completely believable. Room is made up of those moments and as we go back and forth between Jack’s and our own perspective, as we take this journey devoid of dramatic turning points and climaxes,  the viewer is sucked into a story that takes them straight into the heart of the human condition. For Jack’s and Joy’s story is at the same time and extraordinary one as well as one that happens every single day. a story of growing-up, of human relationships, of dealing with inner demons and exterior dangers, of facing life in all its confusing contradiction. Not only is Room one of the most touching and moving films ever, it is also flawlessly told, unassumingly daring and painfully honest. It’s way too little to call it a masterpiece. It’s, as Bob Dylan might say, „life and life only“.

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