Theatrical review. Possible spoilers. This sometimes difficult to watch, or even contemplate, film is thankfully handled with great delicacy by director Lenny Abrahamson. So don’t be afraid to search it out even after it disappears from the few theaters where it is currently showing. It will be on video soon. If you watch a fair share of movies and have been paying attention in recent years, you may have noticed Brie Larson in smaller but terrific roles (“The Spectacular Now, The Gambler, Digging for Fire, Trainwreck”) and perhaps as the lead in a small film called “Short Term 12.” I expect she will get her due now for her magnificent performance as “Ma.”
It is now 7 years after teenager, Joy Newsome (Larson) disappeared from her home in Ohio. The film opens as she and her now 5 year old son, Jack (a gifted Jacob Tremblay), celebrate his birthday imprisoned in a 15’ x 15’ shed. Captured by “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers), Ma/Joy is routinely by the man which ultimately produces Jack. And for the record, Abrahamson keeps the scenes off camera. In return for her cooperation, Nick feeds the mother and son and provides the shelter. But they never leave. Their only view of the outside world comes in the form of a skylight.
Ma decides that since Jack is now a big boy, she must teach him the realities of the outside world. Until this point, she has made a game of things, keeping it simple for a young child. To Jack the pictures that come from a TV aren’t real. They are just pictures. Jack has no concept of reality. In a terrific scene, we see Ma trying to teach Jack how a wall works. That is, there are things on one side of a wall and different things on the other side. Ma has her work cut out for her, but believes Jack is now old enough to create a ruse on “Old Nick” that will allow Jack to escape. It is a tense section of the film and one that lifts it from its unsavory premise.
Once freed, Jack as you would expect, has a difficult time. He’s shy. He doesn’t even know how to go up and down stairs. But he’s a kid. He learns quickly, makes a new friend both human and canine. Joy’s mother, Nancy (Joan Allen) and her newish husband, Doug (Matt Gordon) do their best to acclimate Jack and Joy back into the world. But as we see Jack slowly adapt, we see Joy’s mental condition deteriorate. Again Ms. Larson transforms Ma from a loving and protective mother, to a young woman succumbing to the mental anguish that has fermented for 7 years. It is truly a remarkable performance.
You have to be impressed with the direction of Abrahamson and the script by Emma Donoghue from her own novel. The subject matter is tricky but it is handled wonderfully. In the end you’ll be wiping away tears, but with a smile on your face. Highly recommended.