It is no secret that Indy's own Heartland Film Festival is one of my favorite film festivals of the year. It's not just because I identify with their mission of celebrating films that transcend beyond entertainment into the realm of positive, inspiring and life-changing cinema, but there's something about attending the Heartland Film Festival that permanently alters one's genetic code.
It's an experience that stays with you forever.
For me, that's what the best cinema is really about. The best cinema, at least for me, doesn't just entertain but alters the map of your heart. It can be happy or sad. It can be thought-provoking or utterly mindless. It can challenge you to grow or remind you that you're good enough just the way you are.
The best cinema celebrates the full spectrum of the life journey and inspires you to live and love and laugh even when every fiber of your being wants to curl up into a fetal position and just scream out "No more!"
The 2015 Heartland Film Festival opened last night in Indianapolis at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and instantly served up a powerful reminder of its mission with its opening night film, director Lenny Abrahamson's devastatingly beautiful Room based upon by Emma Donoghue's acclaimed novel of the same name.
To say that Room is a good film feels inadequate. It feels empty compared to what I experienced watching the story of Ma, played with emotional precision and vulnerability by Brie Larson, and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) as it unfolds in ways that are both nightmare and fairy tale all folded up into one not so neat ball of aching humanity.
Room is not just a film, but an experience. As I sat there at the back of IMA's Toby Theater, occasionally laughing and occasionally sobbing, I experienced what I so seldom experience inside a movie theater - that feeling of being immersed inside someone else's world, in this case a world that I can only hope I never have to experience in real life.
Room centers around a traumatic event, but Room is not about that traumatic event. Room is about the relentlessness of hope and the power of love to overcome even our most seemingly inescapable prisons. As we are introduced to Jacob and Ma, we are thrust into their "room." It is a room we can escape, but it is a room that has become the definition of reality for them, especially young Jack, who has known no other reality in his short life. In this room, Ma has dedicated herself to providing Jack with as normal a childhood as humanly possible despite the extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
She loves him. She cares for him. She tries desperately to protect him from the surprisingly normal semblance of evil that visits nightly and is never truly that far away.
Room is the kind of film that I hesitate to say too much about, because to give anything away is as if to peel away part of the cinematic experience that envelopes you while watching the film. For those of you who've read Donoghue's book, you can rest easy knowing that Donoghue herself has adapted the book into screenplay in a way that remains faithful to her literary vision while understanding, with surprising clarity, the special nuances that must exist once the story unfolds on screen.
When we meet them, Ma has existed in this 10' x 10' world shut off from the rest of the world since the age of 17. Jack, a creation resulting from life in this altered reality, arrives at the age of five shortly after we meet him and has come to know the images he sees on a small television screen as the closest thing to reality he's experienced outside this room.
Irish director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank), has crafted an almost miraculous film that somehow manages to wrap itself around a traumatic event without ever becoming defined by it. Perhaps even more impressively, Abrahamson directs Room in such a way that it neither exploits that event or the people who experienced it.
Much like is true on Donoghue's novel, Room finds itself living two distinctly different lives yet living into both with equal amounts of unfathomable sensitivity and insight. One of the key factors in the success of both the novel and the film is the decision by Donoghue to have the story narrated through the voice of young Jack, though the approach is used more sparingly in the film. This is particularly impactful because for Jack "Room" is his entire universe and, in his eyes, this is not a world where he is captive but a world that contains everything he knows.
Think about that. EVERYTHING he knows.
There are so many words and lines and images that keep bouncing around my psyche' as I write this review and as I reflect upon the experience of watching Room and immersing myself in Jack and Ma's experience of Room. As a writer, I pride myself on always being able to come up with the words to say what desperately needs to be said, but then there are those moments that somehow seem to resist being defined by the written or spoken word.
Room is one of those moments.
It would be reasonable to believe that a film would somehow weaken once it removes itself from its dramatic core, though in this case that removal involves one of the most compelling and unforgettable scenes in a film in recent years, but Room unimaginably only strengthens itself as Ma and Jack shift from Room to the broader universe in the film's second half. For Ma, this transition is scarred by years of being subjected to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers, television's Rectify), abuse that is portrayed honestly yet sparingly as Abrahamson, once again, glorifies the human beings and not their traumas. Ma has spent nearly every waking moment of the last five years or so struggling to survive and living in a world where she is both fiercely controlled and fiercely controlling. Larson, who was a mere 23-years-old while filming Room, plumbs the depths of the human psyche' both inside Room and once Ma is no longer required to merely survive. Larson masterfully, and I mean masterfully, captures the deep psychological woundedness of a woman who is struggling to understand what it means to be free again while never forgetting what it is like to be captive.
While we've known that Larson could act, she was a true revelation in Short Term 12 and Rampart among other films, Room truly depends upon the performance of a child who could not under any circumstances simply get by playing a precocious five-year-old. Jacob Tremblay, who was actually eight-years-old while filming Room but who has a slight physique that made his passing for five believable, was less of a certainty given a relatively modest filmography that includes the likes of The Smurfs 2, Extraterrestrial and Before I Wake. Tremblay's performance is one of naturalness and instinct and vulnerability, the latter most likely coming courtesy of one of the most beautiful and wondrous examples of onscreen chemistry to come into theaters in quite some time between he and Larson. It's a performance, and it's definitely a performance, that deserves to be remembered come award season.
Using a Red Epic Dragon 6K camera, D.P. Danny Cohen lenses the film in a way that is claustrophobic yet warmly intimate, suspenseful yet, at times, also remarkably comforting. It would seem a nearly impossible task to create a place that simultaneously feels horrifying yet humane, yet Cohen somehow reveals Room in such a way that we understand that both love and hate can awkwardly co-exist.
Stephen Rennicks's original score is emotionally resonant and companions the film without becoming an intrusive extra character, while Ethan Tobman's production design is sparse yet thoughtfully manifested.
Sean Bridgers, while tasked with playing a man who would seem to personify evil, presents Old Nick as a sort of broken normalcy that makes it all that more uncomfortable. Joan Allen, and where the heck has she been, transcends cliche's as Ma's mother while Tom McCamus is memorable as a man who may truly serve as Jack's first actual male model of normalcy in what becomes his broadening worldview of reality. William H. Macy isn't really given enough time to leave a lasting impact as Ma's birth father, whose joy at his daughter's freedom can't mask his discomfort at having a grandchild birthed out of the experience.
There are films that permanently alter your psyche'. They shake you up and rattle your soul and make you turn inward to reflect and outward to hug on everyone around you. Room is such a film. There were glimpses of my own childhood experiences in Room, though my gut tells me that will be true whether you've ever experienced a major life trauma or not because Abrahamson so beautifully constructs a film that celebrates the power of love to overcome hate, hope to overcome despair, and the absolute power of the human spirit to live and love and laugh and learn and to somehow find a way to not just survive but thrive against the greatest of odds.
Winner of Heartland's Truly Moving Picture Award and easily one of 2015's best motion pictures, Room is an exhausting and exhilarating film that will horrify you and heal you and, just perhaps, make you grateful for the very real world around you.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic