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USA 2015
Directed by
Lenny Abrahamson
118 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars


Synopsis: Five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has spent his entire life in a single room  with his mother (Brie Larson) as his only companion. This is the story of what happened when he discovered the world outside.

With its missing article the title of this film is slightly irregular and with its opening section in which a young mother and her five year old child for some unexplained reason are confined day and night to a dingy box-like room, the initial impression is that Lenny Abrahamson’s film is going to be some kind of high concept art movie like Yorgos Lanthimos currently screening The Lobster (or, even more pertinently, that director's 2009 film Dogtooth). But after 30 minutes or so the narrative breaks out of its confinement and evolves into a realist drama of conventional form as it depicts the re-integration of Jack and his mother into the world at large. 

Those 30 minutes are, however, crucial in establishing the uniqueness of the situation, with Ma, as Jack calls her, having created to the best of her ability a liveable world for her son whose only inkling of anything beyond “room” is what he can see through a skylight.  Although Jack feels instinctual frustrations which he regularly takes out on his mother in fits of petulance, Ma carries the burden of knowledge and the emotional and psychological toll on her is considerable.  The hermetic intensity of this section of the film informs everything that happens after Jack and Ma return (at least in Ma’s case) to normal society.  Whilst the boy relatively unproblematically adjusts to his new environment it is Ma who is traumatized and unable to cope with the fracturing of their former relationship and the literal invasion of their world in what is a kind of compacted and accelerated version of the real life mother-child bond.

As Jack, Jacob Tremblay is quite remarkable.  Yes he’s cutely photogenic, particularly with his long, tousled locks, but this is no John Hughes movie and he is called on to deliver a pivotal dramatic function.  Already a seasoned actor (he has 9 prior credits on IMDB) his performance is convincingly natural although little in his life experience could have prepared him for the role.  As his devoted Ma, the comparably experienced  Brie Larson is also outstanding and the closeness between the two, both as characters and actors is the emotional engine of the film. Joan Allen also stands out in a smaller role as Jack’s Grandma however the casting of William H. Macy, an actor more suited to comedy than drama and also a too well-known face, is a potential distraction.

I have not read Emma Donoghue’s novel, which probably means that I value the film more highly than those who have. Apparently it was more focused on Jack’s perception of events and was all the more compelling for it, but as a stand-alone project, the combination of  Donoghue’s screenplay, Abrahamson’s restrained direction, helped out by Danny Cohen’s cinematography which makes telling use of spatial relations and architectural elements and  Nathan Nugent’s judicious editing, together with the two lead performances make for an uncommonly effective film, light years beyond the standard-issue genre effort it might have been.




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