"Room" Is Gross, Exploitative Goo

Actress Brie Larson made for a transcendent lead in 2013 indie drama “Short Term 12.” Destin Cretton’s gut kick of a movie about twenty-something supervisors at a group home for at-risk teens earned all of its tears while skillfully spotlighting an immense young talent ready to begin her rise to ubiquity – all on a shoestring budget, no less. It was raw, it was relatable, and it came out of nowhere.

“Room” is its negative, with Larson in common and nothing else. More than just obvious awards bait, it’s a weepy, treacly gob of book club bullshit that gives “Forrest Gump” a run for its counterfeit money.

But at least “Forrest Gump,” for all of its empty platitudes, had a mean streak to keep things interesting. “Room” has no such wrinkle, with Irish writer Emma Donoghue adapting her own novel so awkwardly that her unease practically seeps out of the screen. Her ostensibly layered story has been stripped, lacquered, and offered up as a trophy of misguided book adaptations, appropriated by director Lenny Abrahamson (“Frank”) in the name of manufactured emotionality.

Things don’t start out so terribly.

The titular Room sees Ma (Larson), a young mother, and her 5 year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), held captive by a serial rapist. We soon learn that the man, referred to as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), kidnapped Ma seven years prior, impregnated her, and has kept her locked inside his backyard storage shed ever since.

Larson’s performance is necessarily one of strength and warmth, with her character raising a child as normally and lovingly as possible in the most hellish of circumstances. Conversely, Jack’s life seems mostly normal to him, his worldview one of curiosity and hope and love in the face of unconscionable evil.

The first act is repetitive but warm, its core mother-son bond inherently appealing and heartbreaking.

It’s when Ma begins staging escape attempts that the screenplay short circuits, quickly imploding thanks to a number of garish directorial choices on the part of Abrahamson.

The filmmaker’s choice to shoot the big breakout scene from Jack’s point of view makes sense, given that Ma has employed Jack to get help while she stays behind. But it’s the first sign than Abrahamson’s vision for the movie is an entirely literal one and that he doesn’t know whose story he’s telling.

Emma Donoghue wrote Room explicitly from Jack’s point of view. The film version mostly belongs to Ma, grossly using Jack the same way a boss might use an inspirational poster – as a prop – without making any attempts to explore his psychology.

The picture’s nadir comes in the form of a song, though. Post-rock band This Will Destroy You’s “The Mighty Rio Grande,” used so effectively in Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” and then less effectively in every sports television montage since. Here it’s an albatross around the neck of the film’s most important scene, painfully telegraphing the movie’s intent: to make you really, really sad. As the song’s five guitar chords reverb endlessly, as cymbals crash tastelessly, Abrahamson tries desperately to whip up the most artificial catharsis in movie history, only to mark the halfway point of his film.

The rest is a disaster of pacing and cheese and willful misery, walking us through Ma and Jack’s inevitable struggle to adjust to “normal” life. As Ma’s divorced parents fight over how to treat their newfound grandson, Jack comes to observe that everything was easier in Room. Through the fog of her depression, Ma can’t help but tacitly agree.

In an inherently unrelatable movie (few will ever experience anything as horrifying as Ma and Jack do here) the real world material manages to be even less accessible than everything that came before. Not only does the film continue to exploit the misery of two plainly damaged people for bogus life lessons that anyone not in their situation couldn’t possibly relate to, but it finds itself stuck in narrative cement. Nothing happens for the better part of an hour.

Although occasionally ripe with beautiful visuals – Room is thoughtfully designed and the movie’s final scene looks great – the set is ironically the movie’s only element that isn’t a façade.

The way Donaghue declaws her story in service of a broad feel-good-by-way-of-feeling-bad approach and a dumb, nonsensical conclusion isn’t merely annoying: it makes it crystal clear that cynicism (or even criticism) in relation to “Room” is unwelcome. In this way, it’s a genius piece of “with us or against us” filmmaking. (Distributer A24 knows this. They recently tweeted “Good litmus test: if you make it through [a particular scene in the film] with dry eyes, you are a sociopath. 99% accuracy.”)

Audiences that just want to feel something will undoubtedly be fed here. Abrahamson’s naked emotionalism isn’t hard to tap into and Larson is an inherently empathetic performer. But “Room” is lowest common denominator goop, so interested in feeling that it neglects to say or do. That its misguidedness is enacted with so much gusto makes the entire venture all the more infuriating.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: October 16, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Lenny Abrahamsom
Screenwriters: Emma Donoghue
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, William H. Macy
MPAA Rating: R (for language)