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Room •••••

Room_PosterStarring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Emma Donoghue, Emma Donoghue
Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 118 minutes
Release Date: October 16, 2015


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, do you have room in your schedule?

I’d like a room with a view. A viewing of our latest movie Room to be precise. Let’s recap:

The opening scenes of this movie occur inside a small room where a young mother named Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are living. We aren’t sure how or why they are living in such an odd small space until it becomes apparent that they are being held captive by a man named Nick (Sean Bridgers), who kidnapped Joy seven years ago and fathered her child (through rape). The “room” is actually a shed in Nick’s backyard.

One day the power goes out and Joy and Jack nearly freeze to death. That’s when Joy realizes that she needs a plan to help Jack escape. She begins to teach him of the outside world, a thing he’s never seen. Then she coaches him on how to be sick, even how to act dead. Nick falls for the rouse and takes Jack out of the shed to bury him. But Jack escapes. And that is when his real journey begins.

Greg, Room is the perfect name for this movie. It refers, of course, to the location of the trapped mother and son, but it also refers to room for growth and the spaces we need to become what we’re meant to become as human beings. Joy and Jack turn out to be buddy heroes who need each other to escape their physical prison and then later their psychological prisons. I enjoyed this movie’s ability to take us from small scary spaces to large scary places.

Scott, this is not your usual hero’s journey. Often, the hero’s ordinary world is exposed to the viewer in the first 10 minutes of the movie. Then, an “inciting incident” happens that takes the hero to an unusual place. Room starts in the unusual place (which is the only place Jack has ever known). We spend half the film there, getting to know what it is like to be trapped for seven years.

The inciting incident comes at the halfway mark when Jack escapes into our ordinary world – but his special world of “the outside.” But he is so overwhelmed by the openness and vastness of the world that he is hardly able to talk. Jack befriends a police officer who gently coaxes information from him so that they can rescue his mother.

The film’s unusual presentation of the hero’s journey is one of many elements that captivated me. For Jack, the room is his ordinary world. For Joy, it is the unfamiliar world. So our two heroes start out in different worlds, yet ironically they’re in the same room. The movie must end with them both safely ensconced in the same world. That’s a highly unusual journey for two people to travel, and so no wonder it is rife with tension, pain, and suffering for both of them.

We often talk about good heroes needing to transform themselves, and there can be no transformation while trapped in the room. So our heroes must escape, and after they accomplish this feat, the doctor who examines Jack makes the point that Jack is “plastic” — a term pointing toward his malleability being greater than his mom’s. Indeed, Jack’s ability to cope in his new world is less problematic than Joy’s return to her original world. It doesn’t help that her original world can be cruel. Joy’s father behaves badly and journalists ask her insensitive questions. Perhaps Jack derives his resilience from his long hair, which turns out to hold the hero’s secret power, much like the ring’s power to aid Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.

The supporting characters around Jack are mostly seen through the haze of the young boy’s inexperience. Besides his mother, the only person Jack sees in the room is “Old Nick” – the kidnapper/rapist. And then only through the slats of a wardrobe Jack hides in when Nick visits from time to time.

Once outside, Jack meets a police officer who acts as his mentor in the new world. Later, he meets doctors and nurses who, I believe, are shot in such a way that we never see their faces. Next Jack meets his grandparents. As Scott mentioned, the grandfather (William H. Macy) can’t accept Jack. The grandmother expects her daughter, Joy, to be the same little girl she lost seven years ago. These aren’t strong characters – which is fine – as we need to focus on Jack and his struggle to make sense of a world far more immense than anything he ever imagined.

Yes, exactly, Greg. Once again, we encounter supporting characters who are either instrumental in helping our heroes accomplish their goal or who hinder the heroes. You’re right that the woman cop helps nurture Jack and guide him to safety. Her mentorship is pivotal, occurring during the crucial initiation of his journey. But Jack’s lifelong mentor is his mother Joy, who teaches him about the world of the “room” and then helps him unlearn those lessons in order to adapt to the world beyond the room. Joy therefore plays a dual role in this story; she is both a hero and a mentor figure.

A wonderful coda to the story occurs when the heroes return to the room at the film’s end. In any good hero tale, the hero returns home but sees home in an entirely new way. Joy takes Jack back to the room and he can’t believe how much smaller it seems. Isn’t that the way all of us see our old homes and neighborhoods? Even Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz realized that home is now much bigger than her original geographic conception of home. Like any good hero, Jack now realizes that home is not what he remembers it to be, that he can never return home, and that he is forever changed by his new experience of home.

Room is a welcome disruption to the classic hero’s journey. While we spend a long time in the Room, it’s all put to good use. We learn what it’s like to live in a world that is only 100 square feet and the only reality is what you see on TV. I’ve seen Brie Larson in other films, but she really commanded the screen in Room. Young Jacob Tremblay also deserves praise for a performance that even seasoned veterans would have found challenging. For two actors to hold us in rapt attention for 60 minutes with nothing but a shed to work in is an achievement. I give Room 5 out of 5 Reels.

It’s unclear if this is a buddy film or some sort of hybrid. We start out with Joy as the main character taking care of her child. In the initial scenes, she is driving the story. But soon we learn it is a symbiotic relationship where Jack sustains Joy’s sanity as much as Joy sustains Jack. So it moves into buddy territory. When Jack and Joy are released into the world, the symbiosis continues. But when Joy has a breakdown, it’s Jack who becomes the lead character – sustaining Joy. It’s not clean, but nothing about Joy and Jack’s life is clean. I give the symbiotic duo 4 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, the supporting characters aren’t much in this story. Old Nick, the villain, is barely in it and is dispatched at the halfway mark. Then, the villain becomes Joy and Jack’s inner pain and reemergence into reality. Joy’s mother doesn’t have much to do but bake cookies and her new husband is there only to be a swell guy. As I said before, these secondary characters are downplayed to give Jack and Joy the limelight. I give them only 2 out of 5 Cast points.

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Room is one of the year’s best movies. Brie Larson turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as a young woman who must overcome horrific circumstances to survive, and if that weren’t enough, she must help her young son overcome those same horrific circumstances. I was riveted by their dual journeys and deeply felt their every triumph and every setback. One could argue that the movie represents a wonderful metaphor for how we all must break out of our prisons, help others along the way, and overcome our personal demons. This movie grabbed me in many ways and deserves the full 5 Reels out of 5.

As you aptly point out, Greg, this film takes the conventional hero’s journey and turns it on its head in a unique and masterful way. Our two heroes start out in different worlds but end up in the same, beautiful world together. They are forever transformed by their journeys and truly needed each other to triumph on their individual missions. This story captures the hero’s journey in clever and satisfying ways. I give Joy and Jack a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters play pivotal roles in assisting or blocking our heroes from their development as characters. The most important secondary characters are the woman cop who intuitively reads Jack’s cryptic verbal and nonverbal cues during his escape, and Joy’s family members whose dysfunctional qualities make you wonder why Joy didn’t run away from home sooner than she did. Joy and Jack are clearly the stars of this movie, relegating the supporting cast to minor status. These team of players gets a respectable 3 cast rating points out of 5.

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