In James White and Room, two of 2015’s sharpest, most intimate, and intelligently moving dramas, the stories of a mother and her son take center stage. These are films with rich emotional terrain in claustrophobic settings, relationships trapped in place, with characters hoping for a miraculous way out to better futures. In James White an aimless twenty-something is caring for his mother as she slowly dies of cancer in her New York City apartment. In Room, a kidnapped young woman lives imprisoned in a shed with the 5-year-old she had with her captor and rapist. The films follow two very different dramatic scenarios, traumatic events where the love between mother and child is the only lifeline. The sons are naïve, confused, easily frustrated. The mothers are strong, complicated, and sad. And there are no easy answers.
James White is the feature debut of writer-director Josh Mond, who makes a great first impression with a film of uncommonly blistering emotional honesty. The title character (played by an intense and sorrowful Christopher Abbott) is a painfully relatable rootless man in his late twenties – jobless, single, stuck. He’s a guy theoretically with many options for creating a life for himself, but can’t figure out where best to start, or how to find his break. This could be the start for an Apatow-ian man-child redemption arc, complete with a potential new love interest (Mackenzie Leigh) and a funny friend (Scott Mescudi). But Mond, through a close, expressive camera and sharply perceptive script, excavates arrested adolescent clichés to find deep, overwhelming reservoirs of pain and truth underneath. Here’s a young man who is truly stuck, not only by immaturity, or the obligations of taking care of his ailing mother, but by a helpless feeling as he sees the comfortable future he’d always assumed he’d have slipping away. He can’t see a way forward, so he’s just waiting for life to start.
Cynthia Nixon, as his dying mother, delivers an astonishingly complex portrait of a sickly woman who sees the struggles of her son and wishes she could help, even as she leans on him to get through each day. She knows there’s only so much encouragement she can provide before he needs to find on his own the initiative and lucky breaks that’ll help him move forward. She doesn’t want him using her illness as just another excuse to stay put. Sure, she’s scared of dying, but she’s also worried about leaving her boy to figure out the world on his own. (She’s been separated from his father, who has died shortly before the film begins, an added mournful layer.) Slow-motion grief is displayed in agonizingly precise emotional specificity, as are the frustrations of being young and disconnected from those around you. It’s not every young person who has to watch a parent die. It’s one thing to head out into the so-called real world to start your own life. It’s another thing entirely to have no parents to go back to.
An early scene finds James in a club, alone, listening to his own music through headphones. He’s always separated, distant, suffocating in his sadness and stasis, even when talking to friends and flirts. Selfish, bitter, angry, anxious, and mean, James isn’t always a pleasant figure, but that’s what makes Mond’s film so satisfying an unflinching character study. It’s a film of compassion towards its characters, but never indulges their flaws, understanding them without excusing them. This makes moments of fleeting pure goodness and connection all the more transcendent. In the film’s most moving and devastating scene, James uses his tendency to live in his own interior world to extend an invitation to his mother, using a shared imagined cozy future to provide some comfort. They talk about a time, years from now, when she’ll be the warm grandmother and he’ll be the happy family man. They know it’ll never arrive, but can still take solace in this oasis of hope and connection in a world stretched thin with sadness.
While James White is about a mother slowly fading away, hoping her son finds some way out of his depression, Room concerns itself with a more literal captivity, where hope is for a more literal freedom. And yet it finds in its potential True Crime luridness – screenwriter Emma Donoghue, adapting her own novel, was inspired by similar real life stories – a wisely observed empathy. Steadfastly humane, and gentle in its decidedly non-sensationalistic approach to the nastier moments, the film is attuned to the psychological effects of its scenario on all involved. The mother (Brie Larson) is both victim and protector. The boy (Jacob Tremblay) has never known any different. He thinks Room is the entire world, and everything else is imaginary outer space. When his mother finally decides to tell him the truth, at a level he can understand, it’s a shock. He doesn’t want to believe, but then, slowly, he begins to understand that they need to escape.
The first half of Room is claustrophobic, intensely small. The mother leads her boy through exercises, tries to teach him as best she can, and feeds him with supplies dropped off by the captor on his weekly trips to rape her. (The boy is hidden away in a wardrobe where he can’t see the attacks on his mother.) This is intense subject matter, softened but not diminished by its perspective, narrated by the kid in a precocious and innocent voice. There’s great narrative and emotional clarity, as the film presents its character’s thoughts with ease, Larson and Tremblay doing impressive work communicating interiority with a shift of appearance. The camera is close, always ready to catch faces in motion, in dramatic outbursts and microexpressions alike. And yet the movie never grows visually stale, always finding clear and casual ways to chart their predicament without imprisoning the viewer alongside them.
When it, at last, approaches a pivot point, the film grows richer still, allowing us to see how difficult it would be to go on living with such a massive trauma, such lingering confusion. There’s an entire second half to the story that continues well past where other, lesser, versions of this story would claim victory, then catharsis, then stop. Donoghue keeps going, committing to the concept so fully she wants to see it through, consider its implications from all sides. We go beyond the room. We see other characters. The world opens up, as overwhelming as it is a relief. And there we find the movie’s real power sits not in its skillful conjuring of unimaginable trauma, but in its wise and compassionate understanding of how thoroughly such a scenario would complicate one’s life.
There’s no easy resolution, and the messy emotions it invokes in the characters will take a great deal of time to heal. By allowing us access to the mother’s conflicting and confusing feelings – great love for her child, but great fear and resentment for the situation that led to his creation – that’ll make healing a long, difficult, and in some ways impossible challenge. This is a film that’s smartly concerned with the impact of its ideas. The strong script and tremendous performances make this director Lenny Abrahamson’s best film. He brings it to vivid life by focusing it all on the emotional core, modulating the production design, from expansive smallness of captivity, to exterior wide spaces pressing in, as he creates a convincing world of complicated psychological territory seen through the eyes of a child, and through the lens of connection between mother and son. Love can’t conquer all, but it sure can help.