So the thing about a movie like Room is that, when it comes to someone like me, who both loved the book and has been a big fan of Brie Larson for a long time, following the press isn’t exactly a good idea.
From the day it was released, Room was lauded for its brilliant performances (which it absolutely deserves), the tightly written script (seriously, it was excellent) and for the way it manages to turns all its viewers into a sobbing, blubbering mess of tissues, washed away contact lenses, non-waterproof mascara streaking their swollen, red rimmed eyes, and all their vulnerable feelings stripped raw and worn on the outside of their skin for the entire world to see.
It didn’t do that last part to me. That sounds negative, but it isn’t at all.
When I left the theatre, I found myself wondering WHY Room hadn’t done to me when it had to so many people. Especially since I was just as primed to be that person sobbing in the theatre. I’m an emotional basket case to begin with; I cry at just about anything to begin with; I loved the novel by Emma Donoghue and remember crying numerous times while reading it; I adore Brie Larson, having been a fan since I moved home from Toronto seven years ago and spent two weeks questioning all my life decisions and binge watching United States of Tara.
(The binge watch was an A+ life decision, if anyone is curious. Pretty much the only sound decision I made that month.)
With all that in mind, I wanted to get to the bottom of why I wasn’t reduced to an emotional puddle by the end of this movie.
Before continuing on, please be aware that there will be spoilers for both the book and film.
Room is about a young woman, Joy, who was abducted and has been kept in a garden shed for seven years. Her abductor rapes her and fathers a child with her, a little boy named Jack, who’s never been outside of Room. After Joy orchestrates a rather brilliant escape plan and she and Jack have to face the world again for the first time, it becomes apparent the difficulties don’t stop just because they’ve managed to get out of Room. It’s a film about the way people display their greatest feats of strength in the quietest of moments and it’s about the struggle to find a place to just BE again after a trauma of such a significant nature.
I was expecting the utter destruction of all my emotional faculties based on what others had said, but for me the film is far more subtle than that, and so my emotional responses were far more subtle, too. I had packed nearly an entire box of tissues and only used three, which is a surprisingly small amount, given that I usually need about eight tissues to get through any given day, that’s just how often things make me cry. I’m a crier through the good and bad, the happy and sad, that’s just how often things bring me to tears. But watching Room made me really aware of the beauty that was coming through in the quiet, gentle moments more so than the dramatic scenes that were MEANT to provoke such a reaction. Those scenes were, of course, still powerful, and I can’t pretend that my chest wasn’t tight and full when Brie Larson’s Joy finally emerged from the dark of the shed and ran for Jack in the police cruiser, but these weren’t really the scenes that stuck with me.
What pulled the strongest emotional response out of me was Jack’s escape. I was genuinely worried for a moment that I might have to leave the theatre during that scene because of how it was choreographed and shot. The camera angles were upsetting and dizzying, plus there was the added stress of feeling like I didn’t know whether he was going to succeed or not even though I’ve read the book and know that he does. It ended up making me so anxious that my heart was pounding and my head was spinning. While I wasn’t quite having a full blown anxiety attack, all the physical symptoms were there, brought on by this scene that really only lasts a few minutes. It’s the scene you KNOW is going to bring the audience into the next act of the film, the scene you’re absolutely certain can only end well, and yet, I wasn’t certain. Knowing it needed to end well in order to further the story, having read the book and being aware of what would happen next, none of that mattered. I was terrified. There’s something about pinning the most important decision in the entire story on a scared, traumatized five-year-old that left me utterly heartsick.
Brie Larson was, as expected, brilliant, but my favourite moment with her in the entire film is during the interview she finally agrees to give about her ordeal. The woman conducting the interview (played so blankly heartless under the veneer of fake interviewer kindness by the always wonderful Wendy Crewson) asks Joy why she didn’t think to give Jack up; why she didn’t ask her captor to take him away; why she didn’t kill herself. And Joy, who’s been so strong and so angry up until this point, begins to crack. You can see the moment in which it happens, this sudden and tiny fissure in the armour she’s been wearing to protect herself and Jack from the inevitable questions. This is my favourite moment in the entire film for Larson, because while it isn’t the first time we’ve seen her scared or angry or crying, it IS the first time we’ve seen her confused and questioning. This poor young woman who’s been making the best decisions for Jack she could given their terrible circumstances is suddenly being questioned in that and we see her doubt. We see the moment the interviewer breaks through and asks the one question Joy can’t possibly stand to ask herself. Because if she hasn’t been a good mother to Jack, then what has she ever been?
Larson’s performance was undoubtedly powerful, but I do have to say that it was Jacob Tremblay who utterly stole the show for me.
It was Jacob Tremblay who was so quietly powerful, who was nuanced and beautifully layered, who was complex and confused and sad and scared and so in love with the world even as he was so utterly terrified by it that even now, just remembering the way he looked at new experiences and new people, I’m tearing up. The moments that made me cry where always his. The moments when I felt most like I was close to that edge of being emotionally destroyed were his. His wide-eyed wonder never felt forced or contrived and his transition, learning how to live in a world he’s never seen before, a world he’s never understood or even realized was REAL is some of the most beautiful acting I’ve ever seen.
His interactions with Tom McCamus, playing Joy’s mother’s boyfriend Leo, were by far my favourite. While Tremblay clearly had a strong strong connection with Larson that was lovely and also instrumental to the gorgeous performance he gave, it was McCamus who seemed to be the only one who knew what to do with this confused little boy. It’s Leo who begins to break down Jack’s walls, the first person besides Joy who seems able to reach beyond the fear and access the little boy who’s still in there, just waiting to get out and play. It’s Leo who first brings true joy back into Jack’s life, who engages him in the simplest ways possible and doesn’t expect anything of him at all. He’s the first person who just allows Jack to be and to have space to breathe and it’s in these quiet spaces that Jack finally begins to connect with the world.
It’s the only thing Joy wants for him, she tearfully explains to her mother at one point, and it’s Leo who allows him that.
When Jack asks his grandmother, superbly played by Joan Allen, to cut his hair, it’s only after Leo has given him the time to discover what he likes and what he wants. From the time Jack and Joy are found, Nancy talks about how she wants to cut Jack’s long hair. It isn’t until Jack begins to understand who he is outside of his mother and outside of Room that he finally goes to Nancy and asks her to do it for him. And when he quietly says, ‘I love you, grandma’? Well, that’s the point of the movie I officially needed all three of those tissues.
Overall, Room is an incredible experience. It was positioned to me over and over again as this film that was going to rip me apart and leave me mangled and broken, but it didn’t. It was quiet and beautiful and yes, it was sad, but it was so hopeful, too. Room might have taken bits of my heart apart with its sadness, but it didn’t leave me that way, all the sensitive bits exposed. The finale of the film might not have told us all there is to know, but it gave us beautiful, hopeful closure. The gentle acceptance of this little boy, the slow transition into being a part of the world, the reminder that the world is so vast, and the optimism of it all put those pieces back together.
And for the record? If Jacob Tremblay doesn’t get an Oscar along with ten thousand other awards he deserves, I WILL fight the Academy.