A scene from ROOM.

Room

Canada/Ireland. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, 2015. Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy. 118 minutes. 10/10

Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives in a garden shed with his mother (Brie Larson), and in his five years of life, neither he or his Ma has ever left it. He doesn’t know that there’s a world outside the shed door, that the things he sees on television are, in some part, real, or that kindly “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) who brings them food and supplies abducted Ma before he was even born. He doesn’t know that Old Nick is his father by rape. He doesn’t know that Ma told him a lot of lies because he was too young to understand the truth. All he knows is the tiny world inside the shed, which he calls Room.

When Old Nick loses his job and can’t keep up with his bills, Ma sees a chance for escape. Unfortunately, Old Nick isn’t her only obstacle: she must convince her son to disregard everything she taught him about the world. And their problems don’t end once they leave Room. How will Ma adjust to a world she spent seven years away from? How will Jack cope with so many things he has never known?

Trauma is a popular source of conflict in drama, particularly in genre exercises: it’s natural to want to see characters in unusual, dangerous situations, defying all odds to succeed. Many such narratives limit the aftermath of that trauma to the final segment of the plot arc, the denoument, but that doesn’t mean it can’t serve as a rich source of drama itself. Ma’s captivity is a traumatic event, but so is her escape, at least to Jack, and Room spends as much time examining the lives of Jack and his Ma inside Room as it does on their lives on the outside.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) and screenwriter Emma Donaghue (adapting her novel) tell the story from Jack’s point of view, giving him a metaphorical second birth into a wider world. This perspective is ironically inverted from the viewers’: we see the outside world as ordinary and banal, and Room as the scary place where bizarre, messed-up stuff happens, but to Jack it’s the other way round. Room is comfort, Room is predictability, Room is safety. When Jack and Ma go to live with her parents, a throng of well-wishers greets them–not to mention the media–and those qualities are no longer present.

Room has been described as a “thriller” and while there are moments of danger and tension, at its core it’s a family drama, more about heartbreak and relationships than excitement. It needs a strong cast, particularly when it comes to Jack, a role that requires a certain natural-ness from Tremblay–too much of a “performance” will kill the film with preciousness. He succeeds admirably here. Larson is also terrific as Ma, who embodies an unusual mixture of maturity and immaturity: emotionally stunted by her captivity, she nonetheless possesses keen instincts when it comes to her son.

I’ll call it now: at this point in the game, I expect to name Room my favorite film of 2015. It’s a sad and challenging but ultimately hopeful story about broken people struggling to help each other fix themselves, buoyed by a great script and fine performances.

ROOM poster.

A scene from JUG FACE

Jug Face

United States. Directed by Chad Crawford Kinkle, 2013. Starring Lauren Ashley Carter, Sean Bridgers, Sean Young. 81 minutes. 6/10

The pact the backwoods community have with the pit has been in place for generations.

Every so often, the pit demands a sacrifice. The simple-minded Dawai (Sean Bridgers) enters a trance; the pit shows him a face of a member of the community. He crafts a jug bearing that person’s face, remembering nothing afterwards. Then he takes the jug to the elders. The elders take the sacrifice to the pit and slit his throat, his blood flowing into the pit. In return for sacrifices, the pit heals injury and sickness.

One day Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) discovers Dawai’s latest jug. It bears her face.

That’s enough to scare any young woman, but Ada harbors a dark secret–she’s pregnant. Two additional factors complicate things. First, the father of her child is her brother Jessaby (Daniel Manche). Second, her parents Sustin and Loriss (Larry Fessenden and Sean Young, respectively) have arranged for her to be “joined”–married–to a boy from another family.

So she steals the “jug face” and hides it. Understandable, perhaps–but she doesn’t know what happened the last time the pit didn’t get the sacrifice it asked for. She doesn’t just put her own life, and her unborn chil at risk. Her family, her friends and her neighbors will all pay the price for what she does.

A terrible force has been unleashed in this small rural community…and it will not stop until its desire has been sated.

As a rule of thumb, the more obvious a horror trope seems, the harder it is to get right. All too often, creators depend on the tropes themselves to provide the scares instead of actually investing them with anything the audience might care about. “Put a clown in it,” they think, and that’s all they need to do, because everybody’s scared of clowns! By this principle, “hillbilly horror” is one of the trickiest subgenres to pull off. (Or at least I think it is; whoever it is that keeps greenlighting Texas Chain Saw Massacre reboots/remakes/sequels/prequels clearly disagrees.) And let’s be honest, the entertainment industry’s characteristic contempt of any place that isn’t New York or California doesn’t help.

Thankfully, writer/director Chad Crawford Kinkle actually bothers to develop his backwoods community beyond the level of “religious zealots with Hee Haw accents.” The characters have more to them than typical yokel ignorance, and even less sympathetic characters such as Loriss operate on understandable, relatable motivations. Kinkle wisely avoids making the community’s pit-worship an obvious Christian allegory, allowing their religion to stand in for any unquestioned received wisdom.

I also enjoyed the characterization, for the most part. Most of the parts are written well (we’ll cover the exception in a bit), and characters who easily could have been comedy yokels instead have genuine personalities.

I appreciated how the film portrays the incestuous relationship between Ada and Jessaby with sensitivity, not sensationalism. The story places Loriss, not Sustin, in the obligatory abusive-parent role without letting Sustin off the hook for his actions. Not only is this a refreshing twist on the usual dysfunctional-family dynamic, it also strengthens the social commentary (conscious or otherwise) by detailing how both male and female roles perpetuate unjust social systems.

That’s pretty heavy stuff for a low-budget horror flick, but Jug Face delivers plenty of entertainment value in the form of solid plotting, creepy middle-of-nowhere atmosphere, and what the MPAA describes as “bloody violence, language and brief sexuality.”

It’s clear that Kinkle has ambitions beyond making a run-of-the-mill hillbilly horror picture, and he mostly succeeds, but a couple elements of the production stymie his vision somewhat. The direction and cinematography are competent and occasionally impressive, but occasionally fall prey to editing and effects that make it look like SyFy schedule spackle.

Relative newcomer Lauren Ashley Carter and onetime child star Daniel Manche have the wrong kind of chemistry with each other. This is a huge problem as Ada is apparently supposed to be in love with Jessaby. From the actors’ dynamic, I’d assumed what little consent she granted in the incestuous relationship was grudging at best. Sean Bridgers, hewing more closely to Deadwood’s Johnny Burns than The Woman’s Chris Cleek, also seems a little off.

The exception, and the cast’s weak link, is Sean Young. I feel for her somewhat because Loriss is the least developed of the main characters. But it can’t be denied that she plays Loriss exactly as the the shrill and unsympathetic caricature that was written.

None of these performances are bad, not even Young’s, but they’re just not entirely convincing.

Jug Face is an enjoyable horror flick that at least tries to do a little something different. Kinkle swings for the fences and though he doesn’t hit a home run, I appreciate the effort.

Jug Face poster