room-poster-2Told from the perspective of a child, Room speaks to the strength of children faced with trauma so profound, more experienced adults might crack under its pressure. The sixth full-length from director Lenny Abrahamson is a film full of hope packaged in a grim plot based on the book by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the script. We meet Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson), as she treats him to his fifth birthday. But there are many odd things in the lead-up to the celebration. She only has a toaster oven in a tiny room to bake the cake. There are no friends or family coming over, and, most devastating to Jack, there are no candles for the cake. He throws a tantrum and refuses to partake of the cake knowing how incomplete it is. Ma suggests that possibly next year there will be candles. That’s wholly up to what groceries are brought to them by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers).

It turns out Jack and his mother live in an 11 by 11 foot space, and they can’t get out, sealed in by a coded lock on the only door. It’s a space that Jack and Ma don’t call home but “room.” Though the scene is presented as blissful up to the tantrum, with big orchestral music, and Jack running around the room saying good morning to the sink and furniture, the film makes no pretense to maintain this artificial pleasantry. That’s only to be found in the inner world of Jack, who has acclimated to growing up in this room all his life because it’s all he knows. Seven years earlier, his Ma was kidnapped and imprisoned in this room by a sexual predator: Nick. You get the picture.

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The film unfolds smartly, and is far less meandering than Abrahamson’s previous film, Frank. The child’s questions drive the film’s drama, and Jack has a lot of questions. His developing awareness serves as rather keen exposition, revealing the details of how he and his mother get on but also how they quietly suffer at the hands of Nick. But they are not just victims. They are a loving, single-parent household whose home happens to be a small space. Even with no one else to talk to, Ma finds a way to socialize her son and — most importantly — teach him empathy. Even if they aren’t alive, he expresses appreciation to inanimate objects in room. In one scene, he thanks the toilet “for making poo disappear.”

It’s all well and good that he learns to be polite, but these are objects. They can never respond. The loss of interaction with another living, breathing, thinking person besides his protective mother and hiding from the man who kidnapped her makes it hard when he is out. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the two are rescued. Even though the commercials and trailer reveal that they make it out, the escape is still a harrowing moment. Sounds and simple visuals, like power lines whizzing overhead from Jack’s POV capture his distress and over stimulation by an outside world he never knew existed until he makes it outside room via a frightening scheme devised by Ma.

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But Jack will bounce back. The film is about suffering but also about people adjusting and growing accustomed to extreme circumstances. A child is especially interesting to watch cope. As a doctor tells his mother, “The best thing you could have done is get him out while he was still plastic.” The boy whispers to his mother, “I’m not made of plastic.” The defiance is charming in its naiveté. After all, the film’s concern is about empowering the child with his immaturity, and the filmmakers stay focused on Jack’s perspective, to the film’s benefit. The cinematography works great on the level of Jack. Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen capture the boy’s perspective maintaining the camera low and tight on the boy. A shallow focus that blurs out background captures Jack intimately, bringing the audience in to relate on his level. Stephen Rennicks’ heavy orchestral score stands in contrast to the little space and the intimate drama. What adults might consider banal, like existing in the moment when sun seeps through a skylight, are big moments for a child, and the music rightly reflects that.

Larson brings great humanity to her performance, working off the boy’s plasticity as a hardened and traumatized woman who suffered through her teenage years as a captive. She responds to Jack’s pain but also his growth as aRm_D22-_GK_0113.NEF woman who finds it more difficult to let go of her trauma even as Jack grows nostalgic for their alone time together. Tremblay is also great, and there’s talk of making him the youngest person to ever receive an Oscar nomination. It’s a cute milestone, but I’m not on board because, as I explained in the paragraph above, there is a lot of cinematic direction that focuses on the child, inducing the viewer’s empathy and also creating the performance. He’s still a child acting as a child should, and credit is also due to the writer, director and even the editor for creating a performance specific to a drama that a child could not possibly understand without suffering some psychological trauma. That’s how child acting works.

And you have to hand it to Donoghue, who brings her prowess with words to the big screen brilliantly, from the honest words out of the mouth of a child, to the complicated feelings that come after trauma. Ma breaks down at one point in front of Jack, during their time adjusting to the real world, and confesses to her little boy, “I’m not a good enough ma.” The boy responds, “But you’re Ma.” It’s a simple exchange, and it’s one of several moments that will draw the tears from the audience (no wonder it won the People’s Choice award in Toronto).

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The film has charm while still exploring disturbingly dark subject matter. The love between Ma and Jack is strong, and the film leaves no gaps to ever question that. When Jack meets his grandfather, Robert (William H. Macy), who can’t seem to bear touching the boy due to his lineage. There’s no question who the viewer will side with when Ma blows up at her dad when he can’t look the boy in the eye at dinner. But it works as this young mother adjusts to a lost childhood with her parents.

However, in the film’s only real flagrant misstep in melodrama, a reporter sits down with Ma to hurl loaded questions in a patronizing demeanor that would be far from ethical or even believable on TV (even Nancy Grace is protective of victims). Here Room falls off the deep end to present a cartoonish, flat character designed as plot device to reach an artificial climax for a story that is actually quite complex. There are still many years to cover as far as looming trauma and drama. It’s still a only a piece of a film and a forgivable dramatic miscalculation in what is otherwise a charming indie film sure to be remembered come awards season.

Hans Morgenstern

Room runs 118 minutes and is rated R (it has references to violence and harsh language). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Oct. 30, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It then expands to other theaters on Nov. 6, including the independent art house O Cinema Wynwood. For other screening dates across the U.S., jump through this link. A24 provided all images to illustrate this post and invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

photo_05As one can expect from the director who made a name for himself with the Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg’s the Hunt (Jagten) feels like a brutal roller coaster of victimization with the audience’s sympathy clearly placed on the protagonist’s shoulders. It’s a brilliant piece of emotional manipulation that will hopefully enhance one’s own awareness to rash judgments of those accused and persecuted solely based around the horror of the crime they are alleged to have committed.

With his new film, Vinterberg, who co-wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm, proves himself a director comfortably in tune with his craft. The film stars Mads Mikkelsen, who won best actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his performance as Lucas. In a rather cruel play on dramatic irony, Lucas becomes the target of a witch hunt after a child fibs that he had molested her. News spreads like a virus among the inhabitants of the Danish small town. Lucas and the girl’s relationship is clearly set up so as to be apparent that Lucas is innocent, and the reason behind the child’s thoughtless lie comes from a childish sense of retribution. But only the audience is allowed to see this. The results of the lie then have a downward-spiral effect on Lucas’ job, friendships, family and social standing in the town where everyone knows everybody.

One circumstance after another piles up, leaving the audience feeling as helpless as the film’s protagonist considering the amount of information shared only between the persecuted Lucas and the viewer. Horrors are committed that feel especially cruel considering the dramatic irony that fuels the Hunt. Normally I would not forgive a film that plays with dramatic irony to such a cruel, manipulative hilt,THE HUNT_Photo by Per Arnesen 3 but because the Hunt offers such a harsh indictment to the quick judgments that are practically the bread-and-butter of so many news shows (think Nancy Grace in the U.S.), I feel it’s worth forgiving. It’s a situation that fuels biases on either side of the recent George Zimmerman verdict that sparked rallies across the U.S. over the weekend. Previously, it happened following the trial of another Florida character, Casey Anthony, who was accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter but acquitted. As much as the theme of the Hunt is timeless it also stands timely, and many could use a wake-up call like the Hunt.

Heightening the film’s drama is precision pacing and clean shooting by cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. In fact, the idyllic village with its surrounding forests is beautifully shot, as the Dogme style of home video/natural light featured in the Celebration— as interesting as it was— has long outlived its relevance. Instead, in the Hunt cinematic techniques are used traditionally to seduce the viewer into the film so one might sympathize with the protagonist.

Everyone seems a threat to poor Lucas. Christensen shoots the children at their own eye-level, framing them in positions that speak to their power in affecting the story. photo_04A sense of dread permeates the interactions by the suspicious adults not long after the accusations become fodder for whispers behind Lucas’ back. It all culminates with a scene that offers an ambiguous note that should encourage discussion.

Mikkelsen, who has been gaining more and more recognition in his slowly building career, currently highlighted by his performance as Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s new television series “Hannibal,” gives a strong performance. He plays fragile and desperate with shaky ease. But the real highlight is the story and how Vinterberg squeezes out all he can from frustrating dramatic irony that will aggravate some and enthrall others.

Hans Morgenstern

The Hunt runs 115 minutes, is in Danish, Polish and English with English subtitles and is rated R (it’s violent and disturbing, but young people of a certain age could have something to learn from this). It premiered in South Florida at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, during which an early version of this review first ran. The Hunt opens this week in South Florida at most indie film houses. It premieres July 25 at O Cinema in Miami. Then, it appears at the following theaters on July 26 (click names for ticket info):

Miami Beach Cinematheque
Tower Theater
Cosford Cinema
Cinema Paradiso

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)