A young woman and a five year old boy appear on the screen, and at first, you think that they are just grindingly poor---one room with toilet, bath, sink, wardrobe, bed, and toaster oven. Clothes are washed in the sink of the room and hung on a line across the room to dry. You certainly hope that they are receiving food stamps and some help, but most state governments are unkind to women and children these days and it looks like they are just barely surviving. The young woman does try to do her best for the boy, he can read and they exercise together and watch TV and talk about all sort of odd things. Things are beginning to appear to be off-kilter. They don't go outside and sometimes they stare at the skylight in the ceiling and speculate about what lies beyond. And then there are those accoustical sound dampening tiles on the ceiling of their hovel---why spend money on those? And then we see the door to the room, it is steel and has no handle, only a punch code keypad on the wall.
The woman tells the boy a story about a girl who went with a man to help him with his sick dog, and the movie reveals itself as a story about keeping a woman in her place. The man with the sick dog is known to the woman and the boy as Ole Nick and he has imprisoned them in the room which is a shed for seven years. He does his manly duty and brings them food (not much of it) and clothes (second hand) and gets his due sex from the woman in return. She has to agree to all of his denigration of her to keep him from the boy who sleeps in the wardrobe while the man is being a man. Now we all know what being kidnapped by Boko Harem or the Taliban or a fundamentalist Christian sect in the US is like for women and their children.
I was about to give up on the film, but the young woman is plotting her escape. She has been plotting and failing at escape for the last seven years, but she has transformed herself from the Coyote after the Road Runner to Bugs Bunny outsmarting Elmer Fudd (Ole Nick). She has a plan that involves the young boy and she has to teach and coach him to make the plan for their great escape work. At the forty minute mark, things begin to happen and after that I was involved in the plot and with the characters. The oppressed were rising up and busting out.
The film is not technically impressive. It attempts to follow the young boy's thoughts (he does voice-overs) and reactions to his compressed environment in the shed room. We see close-ups of the objects in the room that fascinate and interest him. The camera treats the room as he experiences it, he knows nothing else, so it does not limit him. There are shots of his face and then what he sees. The camera does not limit itself to the boy, his mother's face is his lodestar and we see the despair and desparation in it when she is not tending to his needs. And sometimes, we see the mother's face when it is not referenced by the boy and she is in pain and not just from her rotten tooth. The shed is shot with de-natured, washed out colors and only the skylight has the bright promise of a beautiful blue sky that shows possibilities beyond the woman and boy's capture and prison.
The film attempts to keep the boy's experience of his new world after his escape from the room, but the cinematography is rather pedestrian. We still get the close-up of the boy's face and then the limits and blur of what he is seeing. The camera occasionally wanders from his viewpoint to an objectively distant view of the mother and her experiences, but then tightening back on the boy. The color remains flat and de-natured until a scene where the boy is walking with his step-grandfather and his dog. That is the only spot of vivid color and the only image that gives any hope for the boy's life possibilities now that he is free.
And the ending is another grim scene. The boy wants to go back to the shed one more time, and his mother comes with him. He remarks that the shed has "gotten shrunk" and then decides that he doesn't miss it anymore. The mother stands in the doorframe where the steel door has been broken and just watches him. Then the two of them walk out of the shed and the yard where the shed was and close the fence to the shed yard behind them. They walk into the road to a police car, as the camera pulls back in the opposite direction. That does not bode well for either of them for me.
I remember the true story of a young boy who was kidnapped by a pedophile and used and raised by that pedophile until the pedophile captured another young boy because the first boy was getting too old to be sexually attractive. The first boy went to the police and turned the pedophile in and was returned to his family. Happy Ending? Nope, some years later, the first boy committed suicide. The same sort of thing just might happen with these characters. The sun is not shining at the end nor is the sky blue, it is gray.
Brie Larson played the mother and she deserved the nomination. You could see her thinking and plotting her escape and you could see her catatonic despair and depression. She showed her love for the boy without all the hugging and kissing stuff that passes for mother love in a lot of TV and movies these days. The boy and his freedom were her reasons to keep fighting the mental illness that overwhelmed her at times.
I would like to know why the young actor who played the boy, Jack, Jacob Tremblay, was not nominated for the Oscar. He was as good if not better than Quvenzhané Wallis who received a nomination back in 2012 for Beasts of the Southern Wild. And Sean Bridgers is fast becoming the go-to actor to play creepy evil good old boys who are oddly likeable, see his work in the Sundance channel's Rectify. I wish that Joan Allen who plays the grandmother had kept her old face. It was attractive and likeable and wore her age well. She is very puffy these days and I just don't see her character as one who botoxed her face into a balloon while waiting and hoping for her lost daughter to come back home.
This is a "woman's film", but or some reason, it is getting more respect than the other "woman's film", Brooklyn. As dawnybee commented earlier, "woman's film" is not "woman's film" when the primary character whose viewpoint we follow is not the woman but a boy. Like Boyhood from last year, the mother in the film is much more interesting than the boy. Although the boy in this film is better protrayed than the one in Boyhood.