INDIANAPOLIS, Oct. 17, 2015 — Director Lenny Abrahamson joined movie fans via tele-hookup in the Toby Theater in the Indianapolis Museum of Art, on the opening night of the 24th annual Heartland Film Festival. The festival runs through Oct. 25, and Abrahamson was there to celebrate the theater release of ROOM, a dark yet satisfying tale of young mother and her son. Ma (Brie Larson) was kidnapped, held captive, along with her five-year-old son, Jack (Jake Tremblay) by her captor.
The first half of the show, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (who also daringly wrote the screenplay), takes place inside a 10-foot-square shed, the ROOM that is their entire life and which is located we know not where.
Jack has learned to read by his fifth birthday, and Ma makes him a birthday cake, though Jack (who has a TV as his only window on the make-believe, unreal world outside, a world he has never seen) is upset because there are no candles.
Their brutal captor Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) makes occasional visits, bringing meager supplies and occasionally spending the night with Ma on the twin bed, as Jack sleeps in the tiny wardrobe.
Ma hatches a plan of escape that only a woman would invent. Larson skillfully grabs the audience as she takes them through her desperate and bold escape, even as she enlists Jack, who is scared, reluctant and possibly unreliable.
The second half of the film deals with Jack’s wonderment at the world and Ma’s difficulty. Everything is new – people, even trees and buildings. One particularly touching moment takes place in the hospital, as the doctor says to Ma, “It’s good that this happened while he is still plastic.” Jack leans into his mom’s ear and whispers something.
Ma looks at the doctor and says, “He says he isn’t plastic; he’s real.”
The audience wets their eyes over a short scene when Jack (who has had only his imaginary dog, Lucky, his whole life) meets Shamus, a real dog.
Abrahamson gave Heartland viewers some insights into the film’s genesis. He was reluctant to have the novelist write the screenplay. “There’s a rule in Hollywood…”
However, Emma Donoghue rose to the task, flexible and dedicated, astounding him.
Since the film depended on two characters, he cast Larson as Ma fully eight months before shooting started. “She’s just such a warm person; she’s a proper human being,” he said. He brought Jake Tremblay to the set three weeks early. “It’s expensive, but we had to get him used to Brie and the set. Children – they either like you, or they don’t.”
Abrahamson shared his worry about the young actor with such a large part, “Would he be able to hold the film? Would he have the strength, the stamina?”
During those three weeks, Jake and Brie clicked and “just hung out together,” often on the set but also doing things together, going to pizza joints and so on as they developed the comfort and trust that shows in the production.
The two developed a deep relationship, Abrahamson said. “Even in the dark periods [of the filming], Jake would always pull her back. He did for her on the set what he did for her in the story.”
Brie dove all the way into the character. “She worked out, to get wiry and strong. It helped her get into the ‘lioness’ kind of person she was on the screen.”
The conditioning helped, particularly on the tiny set that was the room. “When we got into a really good rhythm, we would go as long as we could. Three or four takes in a row, sometimes.”
The audience was visibly caught up in the characters; though there are other people in the show (including a particularly horrid television interviewer), Ma and Jack are so well developed and so well-acted that others, well-done as they are, are insignificant.
As Jack sees the world outside the room, everything – people, buildings, leaves – is new. He adapts with a mature wonder and curiosity rather than an infantile fear and distrust, reflections on his upbringing and building respect for Ma, who was only 17 or so when she was imprisoned by the hateful Old Nick.
It is Ma who has the trouble on the outside. Though she is an instant celebrity, we see none of her childhood and teen-era friends come to visit; her parents are estranged (and her father, played by William H Macy, is just plain strange).
Jack is her rock, even saving her life at one point.
All this is worth 10 stars; however, there are just a few things that didn’t fit or that took too long to resolve.
The last, first: it took forever to get Jack’s hair cut. He looked too much like a girl, with his near-waist-long hair, with wisps of it always framing his face. Even after the escape, it took so long to address this that it became disturbing. This, though is beautifully (if belatedly) resolved.
Another minor hanging thread revolved around Robert (William H Macy): he inexplicably and explicitly avoided eye contact or any communication with Jack, and there never was an explanation.
The only serious plot fail may not have occurred to novelist/screenwriter Donoghue. At the risk of sounding like a man, I wondered why, in the seven years of her captivity, Ma, obviously in shape (and practicing yoga with Jack in the room), never stood her bed on its end and climbed out of the shed through the plastic skylight.
Those questions aside, ROOM gets ten stars for acting, direction, and cinematography. Its loss is only for the minor plot fails.