Runtime: 118 Minutes
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer: Emma Donoghue
Stars: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers
By Morgan Roberts
Personally, I am now in a whole bunch of student loan debt thanks to my Master’s degree. My degree in professional counselling has really changed how I watch a lot of film and television. For instance, I cannot watch films that use mental illness as to why someone is a villain when we know that people with severe mental health disorders tend to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence. (I’m looking at you M. Night Shyamalan). I also judge therapy sessions and therapist offices on screen. I say all of this to tell you that there are very few films that authentically handle mental health quite like Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” (2015).
The film starts with Jack (the incredible Jacob Tremblay) celebrating his fifth birthday in Room. He sees this as his whole world. It is literally his whole world, as he has lived there his whole life after his mother was kidnapped and held captive. His Ma (the phenomenal Brie Larson) attempts to keep Room a safe place, until one day, it isn’t. She has to hatch a plan to escape. And they do. You know the escape happens, but it does not make it any less stressful to watch a five-year-old child have to articulate very grown-up things to help save his parent.
“Larson won an Oscar for her performance. Rightfully so. She clearly did extensive research to understand many nuances of trauma and trauma response.”
But the shift from Room to the real world is jarring. Jack has never interacted with another human who isn’t Ma. He now has grandparents and doctors and other professionals in his life. But it is Ma who struggles the most. She has suffered immeasurably. Isolation causes psychologist distress. On top of that, she has been abused by her captor for seven years. Living in survival mode for so long has protected her, but now she is having to move from the survival part of her brain to the processing part of her brain. And that is retraumatizing. If none of this was bad enough, because of her years of captivity and her escape, people are almost gleefully fascinated by her trauma. There is one scene where Ma does an interview for a prime time television special and it is one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film.
Larson won an Oscar for her performance. Rightfully so. She clearly did extensive research to understand many nuances of trauma and trauma response. While post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions do differ from person to person, there are some underlying symptoms seen in survivors. She painfully brings those to life while making Ma’s response to attempting to re-integrate her own. Larson gives Ma a maturity well beyond her years but couples it with an immaturity that comes with a seven-year gap of social learning. She is impulsive and moody almost like a teenager, but extremely protective and cognizant of caring for Jack in a very intellectual and instinctive way. There are a lot of contradictory aspects to Ma, and Larson lets them simply exist. It truly was an unbelievable performance.
“Room” is not an easy watch. It is tough to imagine anyone living through that kind of trauma, but Larson and Tremblay are remarkable in their handling of the material.”
While Larson gave such a career-defining performance, Tremblay was equally impressive. Sure, he was a child playing a child. There are a number of themes and topics that would be difficult for a kid to understand. And while there is that air of naivety and ignorance, Tremblay gives a mature performance. He meets Jack where he is. A child with vast intellect – he was the only person his mother had to talk to for five years – with the freshness of experiencing the world for the first time. It is the latter that I would find to be the most difficult. It would be easy to be overly-excited, disproportionately joyous to experiencing and seeing new things. But Tremblay gives Jack a sheepish enjoyment of some of his new life experiences and grows from there. Tremblay plays Jack very reserved at first and slowly lets him blossom into this well-adjusted kid.
“Room” is not an easy watch. I forced my dad to watch it and while he called it incredible, he also said he could never watch it again. It is tough to imagine anyone living through that kind of trauma, but Larson and Tremblay are remarkable in their handling of the material. They capture a humanness during trauma and during healing that is rarely seen on film.