Oscar season is upon us and that means my friends and family mainline nominees like junkies. This year I figured I’d take a different approach to looking at the films up for some of the bigger awards since so many seem to have come in pairs. So let’s take a look at the best picture nominees that center around the abuse of children. Good times! In actuality, this double-feature was not nearly as depressing as I expected it to be. It was, in turns, frustrating and anger-inducing.
Room (not The Room) is about Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and Joy (Brie Larson) Newsome. Joy was captured seven years before the movie starts, and has been held in a single room by her abductor and rapist. Two years into her captivity she gives birth to Jack, so when the movie starts he has lived the entirety of his 5 years in this single room.
The movie is split into two segments, the first being in the room and the second after the escape. Jack is the central character through the film, and for the first segment his story is enthralling. Watching how he interprets his entire world can be frustrating (he reacts with anger when told of the size of the world) but also captivating (he openly accepts magic as there’s no other means of production when food is dropped off). Joy is there, trying to alternately protect and teach him, but her story is passive at this point. She’s gone from a large world to a small one, and her only dynamic in life isn’t to learn, but rather mold Jack into a being that can survive in their box.
It’s the second half of the film when this narrative structure falters. Suddenly Jack is exposed to things he’s never seen before. These range from new faces on people, to cars, to the horizon and buildings. Joy is eager to share these, but oddly enough never eager to join the world. We see Jack struggle with his new environment and the overturning of his world-view, but these scenes quickly repeat themselves. There are only so many times we can see a child recoil with agoraphobia and fear of every new face he sees. Jack retreats back into himself, even asking to go back to “room” to sleep. The interesting story now is Joy. There’s a strange dynamic between her and her parents, now divorced due in part to the tragedy of losing their daughter seven years ago. There’s also a schism between Joy’s father, Robert (William H. Macy), Joy, and Jack. However, most of these looks at relationships are shallow or outright abandoned and never revisited. Similarly, the doctor that is treating Jack urges them to stay for therapy, and later visits them at home in order to help Jack, but he too is abandoned, showing up for a single visit and never drawing any conclusions or offering recommendations for further development. Jack’s perspective is so stunted that he cannot deal with the wold, but that holds the narrative of Room back as well. The movie manages to both drag and feel rushed, and while it ends on an uplifiting note, it feels thin.
This is the story of the news team at the Boston Globe who break the story of the epidemic of child rape within the Catholic church, as well as the institutional protection of the rapists. Or rather, the writing of the largest story to date. As the investigation progresses the reporters as shocked and disgusted to find that people had come forward in the past with evidence that the newspaper had either brushed aside or buried in small columns to little fanfare.
I joked that the beginning of movie is a series of scenes where two men will meet and have the following exchange:
Man 1: (sighing) We need to do the right thing.
Man 2: Listen, the right thing is going to be difficult. Maybe we should just put it off.
Man 1: No, I think we should do the right thing.
Man 2: sighing Okay then, let’s do the right thing.
This really does happen three or four times in a row in the first third of the movie. It started to feel laughable how easy it was to push forward on this investigation. What felt like a joke to start eventually becomes the reason the story is so heartbreaking. Yes, the church is covering up, and at times even stealing documents to cover for the rapists, but in general there’s not much push from anyone in either direction. The reason the story had never exploded, even when documents had been sent in and small numbers come to light, is because each person who knew simply never pushed.
I don’t mean to belittle the investigation. The work they did was solid and astoundingly important, but this movie doesn’t champion the team as the most brilliant investigators ever to work a newsroom. No, what sets the Spotlight team apart from anyone else is that when pushed toward silence they pushed back. The church’s motives are sinister, to be sure, but it’s the apathy of the city that lets it persist for decades. A lot of people knew a little, but no one had cared enough to push back on it, and that’s the heartbreaking part.
Production-wise, this is an odd duck. It may be due to the period style but it feels more like an early, made-for-HBO movie than a best picture nominee. This is not to take away from the story and the acting. It’s just strange in a year of visually stunning films we have one that feels like it was recorded with equipment also used to record period appropriate, Boston Globe employee training films.
This series of comparisons isn’t meant to be a “watch this, not that”, but in this case I’d recommend Spotlight over Room. Spotlight feels small when it starts, but eventually opens up to a dazzlingly large story of complicity. Room, on the other hand, starts small and opens up to the world of suburbia. This structure serves Spotlight well, giving it a growing sense of desperation as the guilty shifts from the Catholic church to everyone. Room is hindered by this same opening up, becoming lost in the mundane middle class.