By Joe McGovern
February 19, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
Caitlin Cronenberg
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The Academy Awards are just days away — which means it’s time to buckle down and really get to know this year’s Best Picture contenders. Today’s deep-dive: Lenny Abrahamson’s extraordinary film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s grim but ultimately life-affirming 2010 novel.

Name: Room

Tweetable description: An abducted woman creates a world inside a tiny shed for her young son, but faces difficulty adjusting to normal life after their escape. 

Movie math: Saw + the last half hour of The Shawshank Redemption + Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt + Terms of Endearment = Room.

Release date: Oct. 16, 2015

DVD release date: March 1, 2016

Running time: 1 hrs., 58 mins.

Box office: $12.1 million (through Feb. 19)

Budget: $6 million

Metacritic rating / Rotten Tomatoes score: 86 / 96 percent

What Chris Nashawaty said:Room is more than the title of one of the year’s most powerful movies — it’s a state of mind that’s unbearably tense and as claustrophobic as a straitjacket. Based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel (she also penned the screenplay), the film is the harrowing story of a young woman named Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who are imprisoned in a squalid 10-by-10 shed. Jack can’t fathom a world beyond the four walls that pen in his imagination. And while his mother tries to explain it to him, you get the sense that she’d almost rather forget it since escape seems like a fantasy too far-fetched to indulge. Their jailor is a brutal sadist named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who grants and withholds privileges depending on his whims. How long have they been in this room? What cruel fate put them here? The movie doles out these answers slowly, making us feel as disoriented as these doomed souls in confinement.” A

Best line: “Hello Jack. Thanks for saving our little girl.” —Nancy, Joy’s mother (Joan Allen)

Number of Oscar nods: Four. In addition to Best Picture, Larson was nominated for Best Actress, Abrahamson for Best Director, and novelist Emma Donoghue for Best Adapted Screenplay. (Donoghue is the first novelist to be nominated for adapting his or her own book since Tom Perrotta was nominated in for co-writing 2006’s Little Children. John Irving is the last novelist to win for adapting his own book, for 1999’s The Cider House Rules.)

Room’s Oscar history: Non-existent. All of Room’s four nominees are first timers: Larson, Abrahamson, Donoghue, and producer Ed Guiney. Supporting actors Joan Allen and William H. Macy, who play Larson’s parents, have been nominated for past work (Allen in 1995, 1996, and 2000; Macy in 1996) and cinematographer Danny Cohen scored a nod for 2010’s Best Picture winner The King’s Speech.

What it’s won thus far: Room became an instant Oscar contender when it won the Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award in September. (Six of the last seven recipients have scored Best Picture nominations; three have won.) However, Larson has been the primary recipient of all the goodwill. She’s run the Best Actress table at the big four precursor shows — the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics Choice Awards — not to mention more than a dozen critics prizes, including from the National Board of Review. Nothing is ever certain, of course, but no serious Oscar handicapper would bet against her at this point. Her costar Jacob Tremblay missed out on an Oscar nod but took home Breakthrough Awards from virtually every critics’ organization that gives out a juvenile prize.

Why it should win: Because none of the eight nominated films wedged your heart in your throat like Room did. Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson overcame nearly impossible odds, first in convincing Donoghue to give him, at the time a little-known director, the reins to her novel, and then by turning an extremely disturbing subject into one of the most transcendent movies of the year. And he achieved it while never compromising the story’s integrity. Like in the book, the film’s first half is set entirely in the shed — a discombobulating experience for audience members who don’t have foreknowledge of the plot. Abrahamson’s direction of the escape scene, which occurs at the 50-minute mark, is in every conceivable aspect (music, editing, design, cinematography, performance) note-perfect. And he cast a non-starlet, Brie Larson, to lead a remarkable cast, which is dotted with subtle work in even small parts, from Tom McCanus as Joy’s mom’s boyfriend, to Amanda Brugel as the cop who helps Jack, to Sean Bridgers as Old Nick. And most of all, Abrahamson fostered one of the finest child performances in movies from Jacob Tremblay. It is via his 5-year-old eyes that we experience much of the wonder of the world, while also being shielded from the horror. Through this little boy we deeply understand the innate goodness of people. Without the mental cognition to even articulate his actions, he instinctually saves the life of his Ma. Twice.

Why it won’t win: Because the nomination, given the movie’s small size and challenging subject matter, is truly an award in itself. Room had been on the outskirts of most experts’ predictions (especially in the Best Director category) and had failed to appear on the crucial list of Producers’ Guild nominees. While many Academy voters that were moved by its emotional message will vote for the film, it is likely too lacking in epic sweep to gain a plurality. But for the filmmakers, there is consolation: Even with the Oscar’s attempt to shorten acceptance speeches, Abrahamson, Guiney, and Donoghue can be sure to still hear their names acknowledged when Larson accepts Best Actress.

Vegas Odds: 50/1 and surging, according to Paddy Power betting website, making it the category’s fourth biggest favorite.

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