by Tara DeMoulin
Some films defy conventional review. Roger Ebert once called movies a powerful empathy machine; and in special cases we must approach a film first and foremost on those terms. Room is an experience more than a product, so I’ve been compelled to do that here.
I would have loved for my first submission to EatDrinkFilms to be marvelously analytical, chock full of witty observations and apt parallels. Better still, something light and fun, a nice punchy piece dribbling enthusiasm and exhorting the reader to rush out immediately to take in some great colorful delight. Instead, my first contribution comes as a surprise to everyone involved.
I missed Room at the Telluride Film Festival, but heard only great things. The first night I saw it playing in a theater I bought a ticket right then and there. What followed was, for me, pure catharsis from start to finish. Every detail resonated with unembellished honesty. From the human-eye camerawork to the simple tone of “This is just what is” in the storytelling, everything about this film felt completely right. It’s impossible for me to review it only in terms of pieces and perspectives… its most affecting features are also the most vulnerable to ruination by value judgment. So I’ve chosen to go a completely different route.
I’m responding to the film here as I did in real time – from an intensely personal place likely to connect most with people who have known early trauma. Others may like or dislike, but we need this film. All trauma changes people, but trauma while the brain is still developing becomes an inextricable part of our architecture. Our identity, our character, and our future are born out of our responses to it, and are continually shaped by our varying capacity to break the damage cycles once forced upon us. Room explores exquisitely the prisons and palaces of imagination we live in while struggling in a whole other dimension from people who have not known early trauma.
There is something about the act of reviewing that feels too separate, too apart for a film like this. This is a deeply intimate film; I can’t treat it like a vintage radio, to be dismantled and reassembled in a neat context with a pack of precise little tools. It’s not neat, it’s messy. It’s eyes, breath, blood, tears, semen, scattered in all directions but always connected. It’s a timeline ripe with damage and flecked with reticent hope. In other words, it is my wheelhouse. Broken and beautiful. Impossibly simple yet unavoidably complicated. A chain reaction of frames and feelings that keep you rooted in the moment throughout, but also take you back. Instantly. Viscerally. Not in the way as sometimes happens with un-engaging films, where boredom sets in and the mind drifts — more like rolling a bowling ball across a minefield. You’re completely present and fixed on its trajectory while experiencing every blast it triggers. And that’s what I present to you in lieu of a review: a series of memories that could only be evoked by a strong work of raw human art.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried has a world-shattering definition of truth in it, a kind of “Everytruth,” that is embodied very well in this film. It’s everyone’s story. Everyone like us. We recognize each other by the dark layers living in our eyes just as O’Brien’s war veterans did. Room may have been based on a partially fictionalized novel, but it is absolutely a true story. It’s an amalgamation of true stories – stories belonging to too many names and faces to count. It’s true in every moment, for someone. And it was true in these moments for me.
I’m hiding in the closet. I have my stuffed panther. I am Bagheera’s wife tonight, nothing can harm me. I have my reading lamp and my plastic farm animals. I have the blanket Mom gave me. I wait in the dark. Bang! I still jump when I hear loud noises. Porcelain shattering – he’s broken a lamp with his bare hand. She’ll be feeling powerless tonight, needing to find me. Needing to exorcise her own victimhood by making me her victim. They never find me in the closet. As long as I can make it in time; sometimes I don’t pay attention. I’m better at listening for noises now than when I first got here. Last time I wasn’t paying attention, she caught me in the middle of the floor writing poetry. Pushed a bookcase over onto me – I barely got out in time. Still have the scar on my leg where the figurine broke and cut me. She doesn’t like poetry. Good thing with my lamp I can write in the closet.
I’m pretending to be asleep. Buying time. My senses are so sharp I can hear the pads of his feet on the carpet as he moves toward me. He stops. I wait. I still hold my breath – they tell me that’s a thing with trauma survivors. It makes me dizzy sometimes, I do it so long. I’m getting better at catching myself. His hand grips the metal frame of my bunk bed. His breath is suspended; everything is suspended. For these few seconds I’m OK. I know what to expect. The hairy, the sweaty. It’s not so bad. It’s like what my almost-dad from the family that didn’t adopt me tried to do. And what the guru used to do when I was little. Maybe not a guru, maybe just a ‘healer.’ We didn’t know him well, I’m not even sure if he was part of the ashram. Mom so needed to believe in the good of that world. I don’t blame her. She needed a refuge too. The silence is broken. He knows I’m not asleep. At least he doesn’t look at me… his eyes are so red and empty. I look at a blotch on the wall that reminds me of my cat. I’m learning, though not for the first time, that my will is irrelevant.
I fall asleep and dream Mom back to me. Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever” is the first album I consciously remember hearing. Now I remember-dream dancing to it in our living room, me in my nightgown and her in her turban and jeans, picking up our cranky old cat Ondananda who wouldn’t even let anyone pet him and hoisting him up onto her shoulder as a dancing partner. She could do anything.
“Aw, but not me, baby… I got you to save me…”
The dreamtrack skips. Mom’s combing my hair in front of the heater now, singing our song.
“Close your eyes… we’re all right…for now.”
Nothing lasts. Love is an exquisitely carved hourglass. Take your time, don’t look at where the grains are. Forget later – later is the cancer spreading, later is the clay face in the open casket, them telling my dad he can’t write me anymore, tears and yelling and them cutting my hair and taking my blanket away. Later is everything and everyone gone. Now is all that matters. We’re all right for now.
The banister is coming into focus. Everything is blurry. My head hurts. I roll onto my side. My arm hurts. The carpeting on the stairs comes into focus. I can’t tell which direction I’m facing. The back of the TV, the couch, but not quite the right angle… I’m upside down. My face hurts. I crawl forward so I’m flat on the ground. My back hurts. Nothing broken? I don’t know. I don’t know how to know. Is it morning or night? How long have I been here? She hit me, threw me against a wall. I remember that. At the top of the stairs… That explains it. I must have fallen. No, she pushed me. Flung me? And in a whirlwind of blind rage moved on and left me here. Right. This is life now. I’m sleepy. Everything hurts. I should go back upstairs and get in bed. I’ll crawl, then I won’t make a sound. I’ll be like Bagheera.
I’m in a child psychologist’s office waiting to play with toys. He has cool toys, the kind we could never afford unless Gramma bought them. I like him, he looks like Phil Collins. I didn’t like my last child psychologist; she smelled funny and had daddy longlegs all over her hallway. She made cooing noises as she watched me complete the drawings she started.
“I’ll start this one – [squiggly line] – and now you finish it!”
This is stupid. Does she think I’m stupid? What does she think I’m thinking? What could anyone think they know about what you’re thinking by how you fill in space on the other side of a squiggly line with a dry Magic Marker? And the group therapy before that! All those kids saying “I hate my dad for leaving me, I hate God for taking my mom away.” Then my turn.
“Um… I’m sorry she’s gone and I miss her.”
Everyone says I’m not grieving enough. They don’t know how I feel like she did. They don’t let me be like she did. What am I supposed to say? I don’t believe in God, and I know she didn’t want to leave. She loved me. Am I angry? I don’t know. I don’t feel angry. I feel sad a lot, but why talk about that? This is the way things are. This is just life now. They all did such weird things. I didn’t understand them, couldn’t connect to them. I shouldn’t have been there – those were little kids! I’m a little kid too, but I don’t feel like one. No one talks about real things except parents, so I talk to them instead. Little kids hate me for that.
Someday how I look and feel will match, and then everything will be fine. Someday someone else will know me and love me like Mom did, I just have to wait. It’s a bookmark, not the end of the chapter. I’m sure. This isn’t the end, I know it isn’t. So why should I grieve? It’s not like I’ll be alone forever. Oh, here he comes. He’s cute. Maybe I’ll be with someone like him when I’m older. He seems kind, even though he’s a little silly. He thinks he can get to know me by seeing what toys I pick out. I like the Fisher-Price supermarket checkout machine. And the guns.
They’re coming to take me away. They found out I’m hungry all the time, and that my bed was sold and I’m sleeping on a foam rubber pad with one sheet. I wonder who told them. I don’t want to leave. I’m afraid every day, but I don’t want to leave. Strange. Her face, imprinted in my mind’s eye as a large ghoulish circle, now has teary rolly eyes in it and the mouth is speaking tenderly. They’ll miss me so much, they love me so much. I should take a bear to remember them by. They buy teddy bears every time they make up after a fight – the whole apartment is packed with teddy bears. She gives one to me, and cries and hugs me. He says nothing.
I think I’m off to something new. I don’t know there are more ghoulish circles in store, more hungry days, more ‘everything hurts’ – just inside this time, not outside. There will be some new things. Cruel practical jokes, forced gorging and dieting. My grandfather’s thumb in my face, his broad wooden paddle… my uncle’s casual neglect, more starvation and shunning and betrayal. But there will be art, too, and beauty. There will be photography, nature, visits to Broadway, choral music, summer camp, a real education. Cotillions, dinner parties, gated villas, premiere suites. I’m packing to go live with the man who watched my mother get raped and then blamed it on her. But I don’t know that yet. In a few years I’m going to be whisked away from him, just as I’m starting to feel settled, and spend my high school years watching the last traces of spirit and integrity die behind the sad zombie eyes of the only person I’m still close to. But I don’t know that yet.
There will be no cameras, no flowers. No hugs and whispers that everything will be all right from now on. No mother; no child. In twenty-five years I’ll go to my grandfather’s funeral and only one other family member will remember it’s the anniversary of my mother’s death that day too. And I’ll go alone, because I was still plastic when Mom died and ended up having twice as many years full of large ghoulish circles as I had with her. So it wasn’t a bookmark after all. It was the end of a chapter of love and peace, and the beginning of a novel of love and absence. And violence. One has a knack for giving way to the other. At least I’m aware enough now to leave as soon as that unfixable unconsciousness is revealed. Vacancy isn’t sexy, it’s scary.
I’ll live alone for seventeen years. Twelve in the same studio apartment. I’ll have a home! Alone is peaceful. Room is peaceful. When you make choices that don’t confine you. And when you stop waiting. I’ll smile at couples kissing on the street, rolling over each other in the park. I won’t be envious of them; if anything I’ll be relieved for them, that they don’t have to know this seal of solitude. And grateful for them, since they give the rest of us something to look forward to. Working on carefree. Not quite there yet. One day I’ll be startled out of a reverie at the sight of a father sweeping his daughter up in his arms and kissing her. Oh, right, people do have that. That’s real reality, not just TV. Some people out there really do get to just live their lives. And others, well. We really do have to live like refugees. At least my life won’t be boring – but I don’t know that yet. At eight years old, I think I’m being rescued. All that matters is now. And I’m all right for now.
Tara DeMoulin is a singer, composer, free-lance writer, and filmmaker native to San Francisco. Her work examines key political and social issues as well as complex human themes. She is the founder of the Essentialist movement soon to be launched in the arts scene of North Beach. This movement is centered in overcoming learned helplessness and generating lasting empowerment in both a personal and broader social context. Essentialism stresses focusing on essential value, and on the essential human element in circumstances shrouded in ambiguity; its main goal being a consistent, well-organized, solution-oriented approach to social strategy with “Where is the suffering?” the first question asked in any conflict.
Room’s official web site.
Emma Donoghue adapted her novel Room for the screen. Her web site features her experiences on the making of the movie Room. Her latest novel is Frog Music, a multifaceted murder mystery set in 1876 San Francisco.
Visit Emma’s Corner.