Every year there’s always at least one Oscar contender for Best Picture that was shot for $50 and had a marketing budget of about $20. This year’s Little Engine That Could is Room, which I’ve been interested in ever since we saw the trailer at the Heartland Film Festival preview night back in September. Unfortunately, its initial run lasted in Indianapolis for a week or two at a single theater on the other side of town, in a month when when we had far too many things going on. Its Best Picture nomination gave it a new reason to live, its distributor dug some spare change out of their couches, and it reopened here on twice as many screens last month. Behold the power of awards-season prestige.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Brie Larson (Short Term 12) is Joy, kidnapped as a teen and locked in a large utility shed, seven years a captive. Jacob Tremblay (Smurfs 2) is her son Jack, now turning five years old and raised to believe Room is his entire world, and the entire world is Room. A stack of books and a working TV are his only windows into other lands and eras — all imaginary, the way Mom tells it. As cracks begin to appear in Mom’s mythology, constructed for the sake of making his caged upbringing bearable, she comes to realize it might be time at last for Jack to hear the truth about their lives, though there’s a bit more for her to undo than just Santa. Together they come to terms with their situation and become more than mother and son: they become collaborators on an escape plan.
The film’s second half deals with the aftermath — their emergence into the great wide open. While li’l Jack encounters strange new paradigms and foreign concepts like haircuts and LEGO, Joy has seven lost years to make up for, disconnections to sort, and no idea what to do with so much freedom.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Joan Allen and William H. Macy are Joy’s mom and dad, wrapped in all the anguish and psychological fractures that having a long-missing child entails.
Sean Bridgers (Deadwood, Rectify) is Joy’s kidnapper “Old Nick” (an apropos nickname if you’re familiar with it), apparently a wormy guy who really wanted a woman to call his own and decided monstrous methods were totally the way to go. Cas Anvar from Syfy’s The Expanse has a small role as the first doctor Jack ever meets. Wendy Crewson, the First Lady in Air Force One among scores of other things, has a couple of moments as Joy’s first official interviewer, all gentle sympathy until the cameras roll.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? In adapting her own novel, Emma Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) divide the story neatly in half between “Life in Room” and “Life After Room”. We don’t know how Joy survived her first two years as a sex slave, but she spent the next five raising her son as normally as possible within cramped quarters normally reserved for tools and lawnmowers. They have their routines, their preschool lessons, their games and chores, all the typical activities of daily living with an undercurrent of never-ending menace. Jack has no idea that anything he sees on TV is real, not even the life-action nonfiction shows. Joy figured it was the only way his naive mind — and, ton extent, her shattered psyche — could cope. It would’ve done no good to spend the first five years of his childhood banging on walls and yelling for help and nothing else.
Their daring escape plan hinges on a lot of factors, including but not limited to Joy’s ability to channel seven years of frustration into a believable performance to con her dudebro overlord hard enough for their plan to come together. As the dominoes fall and freedom nears, a key part of their success is a thing rarely seen in modern films: uniformed police officers using their smarts, doing their job, and saving the day. Compared to the officers in all other films who’re either corrupt lackeys or short-lived cannon fodder, they’re a welcome, almost radical change of pace.
Beyond Room, happily-ever-after is still a series of doctors’ appointments, therapy sessions, and major learning curves away. Jack retreats to his shell at first, hiding behind Ma from all those strangers, weird objects, surfaces he’s never walked on before, broad daylight, germs, and toys that weren’t bought at Dollar General. Funny thing about a lot of kids: they learn and adapt quickly if given the time and chance. Credit is due to Grandma Joan Allen, tenderly getting to know the grandson she never knew she had.
Joy’s a different story. The trauma of surviving such an ordeal isn’t so easily cast aside. Growing from a teenager into a young adult and a mother took a toll that was deferred for years, and soon Mom’s House becomes her new Room.
Nitpicking? As you’d expect, the marriage between Macy and Allen collapsed when their daughter vanished without a trace. It seems common enough in missing-persons movies and TV to call it a trope, but it happens so much in real situations that labeling it a trope seems unfair. The fact that this happens often enough for this thought to come to mind at all is in itself infuriating.
One minor thing bugged me: why was Old Nick paying extra for basic cable? Why not curse them with a VCR and, like, six tapes? Maybe the novel covered that part?
So what’s to like? Brie Larson is a frontrunner in the Best Actress race, and rightly so for living through so many levels of Hell, but she’s at her best when she’s working in tandem with her sidekick Tremblay, a budding force of nature who evolves from a carefree waif to a frightened shrinking violet to something approaching adjusted. Inside Room, Ma had to be his bedrock. Outside in World, it’s heartbreaking when he has to be the one to talk her down. It’d be great if the Oscars had a Best Performance by a Duo or Group like the Grammys do, because come next weekend they’d be sporting twin statues on their shelves. And he could add it to his Star Wars collection and pretend it’s the big monument in front of Maz Kanata’s place.
Favorite bit: the great escape plan. In the absence of Creed or Inside Out in the Best Picture category, Jack’s suspenseful breakout had me holding my breath and got me more emotional than any of this year’s other nominees did. For that sentimental victory alone I hope to see it score points this weekend at the Academy Awards. It’s cheaper and narrower in scope than its flashier, better funded competition, but sometimes it’s amazing what you can accomplish in small spaces.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Room end credits, though they do confirm Legos were used in the film with permission. The wording implies it wasn’t product placement, merely that the filmmakers asked nicely. Even if no official promotional consideration was involved, Lego benefits nicely from its depiction as a therapeutic tool for kids to enjoy true tactile experiences, learn how to interact with something besides screens, and devise their own ways of piecing together a whole new world.