Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Film: Room

Film: Room

room-2015Who: Emma Donoghue, screenwriter
What: Drama
Where: In theaters now
When: In theaters, September 4, 2015; on DVD, March 1, 2016
Why Watch: Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue wrote the award-winning 2010 novel and then adapted it for the screen, earning her nominations for all the major awards, including the Oscar.

Inspired by the (much more horrifying) true story of Elisabeth Fritzl, Room follows five-year-old Jack and his Ma, held captive in a shed for the entirety of his young life. When Jack makes a daring escape that saves them both, he also makes a thrilling discovery – the outside world.

The novel is narrated by Jack and has all the preciousness of a young boy’s language: “Good morning, rug. Good morning, table. Good morning, meltedy spoon.” Imagine 300 pages of that, and you’ll understand why the film uses that conceit sparingly. Donoghue smartly streamlines the plot (cutting all but the most vital characters in Jack’s world and leaving out controversial constants like breastfeeding a five year-old) and, while the story still overwhelmingly belongs to Jack, her adaptation is slightly more inclusive of Joy’s (Ma) desperate point of view. It’s a high-stakes premise with a small scope that smoothly transitions from domestic dramedy with fairy tale and gothic underpinnings to breathtaking thriller to social commentary.

That it’s genre-defying partially explains why Room so eludes the grasp of director Lenny Abrahamson, whose Oscar nomination here is bewildering. His fondness for close-ups is reminiscent of you-know-who, all the slow motion is laughable, and Stephen Rennick’s constantly swelling, sentimental score is, frankly, ridiculous. Despite largely being ignored by her director, Oscar-nominated Brie Larson (Short Term 12, United States of Tara) as Ma gives a dedicated performance that is its most moving in the pockets between dialogue – a visibly broken spirit when an escape plan fails, explosive moments of frustration that burn off to the deep depression of “gone” days, and a pure, shining love and protectiveness of her boy, her world. More remarkable, though, is Jacob Tremblay as the long-haired and precocious Jack. He bounces around claustrophobic Room with buoyant energy, finding joy in his meager surroundings – Sunday Treat, egg snakes. He’s a marvel: when he encounters the outside world for the first time, gazing upon the bright sky, his eyes widen in an almost hesitant wonder; and as, overwhelmed with the world, Ma retreats into herself, he tiptoes out of his shell, beautifully portraying the resilience and openness of children.

Room is at its best in its explorations of parenting – of whether one person can be wholly enough for another – but it’s Trembley who defies all its limitations, guiding us through an emotionally heavy journey with a light, soulful touch. While neither the novel nor the film are perfect – far from it – the film fares better because of its pint-sized star.

Bechdel TestFAIL

  • Two named women…: Yes, Joan Allen plays Nancy, Ma/Joy’s mom.
  • Who talk to each other…Yes.
  • About something besides a manNoI could be wrong on this, but it seems to me every single conversation revolves around Jack (not a man, but still male), and these conversations are truncated to a couple sentences each. Joy does, however, speak to her own experience with a talkshow hostess – who is never named.

Racial Bechdel Test: FAIL

  • Two named people of color…: NoThe only one named is Dr. Mittal (Cas Anvar), who attends to Joy and Jack.
  • Who talk to each other…: N/A.
  • About something other than a white person…: N/A. 

To be fair: A good half of the movie is spent with just Joy and Jack, and the only two significant supporting characters are Joy’s mom and stepdad (Tom McCamus). (Poor William H. Macy is wasted as Joy’s dad – he has maybe a dozen lines in total.)

Why the Bechdel Tests?


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