The Lower Rooms runs on dread—not of anything specific, but the dread that comes from uncertainty. It does so quietly and without drawing attention to itself. It’s a movie that isn’t concerned with telling a story, so much as creating a mood and reveling in it, which it does quite well.
The premise is simple. Tenzin (Lopsang Tenzin), a Tibetan refugee with a tortured past, comes to stay at a mom-and-pop rehabilitation center of sorts. The pop is nowhere to be found, but the mom in question is Madeline (Kelly Tallent), a tattooed, easy-going woman who seems to be lost in life but too shy to ask for directions. Rounding out the Lynchian sitcom, we have Rosie (Jena San’Cartier), Madeline’s sixteen-year-old daughter, who is the first to greet Tenzin when he arrives. “Greet” may be the wrong word, because, like many her age, she’s contentious, skeptical and subversive for the sake of being subversive. The more Rosie prods Tenzin, the quicker she realizes he’s no ordinary stiff, but a tightly sealed vessel of forbidden knowledge.
“…a Tibetan refugee with a tortured past, comes to stay at a mom-and-pop rehabilitation center of sorts…”
Their relationship is the axis on which the movie rotates, and reminiscent of the Joseph Cotten/Teresa Wright relationship from Shadow of a Doubt, as there seems to be an unsettling, unspoken dialogue going on between them at all times. Because of the minimalist script and the single location, extra emphasis is put on Tenzin and San’Cartier to develop their characters’ unusual connection. They do so well enough, particularly San’Cartier, who delivers Rosie’s eye rolls and scoffs without a hint of irony. Tenzin’s performance is more than a little rigid, but, for all I know, purposefully so, because it adds something to his character’s façade of normalcy, which is always on the brink of falling away.
As intriguing as their relationship is on the surface, there’s not much to grab onto. Many films will hold your hand to the point of frustration, but this film responds with the opposite extreme; it shoves a twenty in your pocket and kicks you out of the nest in the first five minutes. Considering that the script’s already rather sparse, this hands-off, naturalistic approach is a misstep from the directors, Barry Hunt and Nathan Wilson, because it leaves the film in a state of thematic limbo. Some scripts can stand alone, but this one needs a director’s vision—a point of view—to animate it. That aside, Hunt and Wilson succeed in drenching the film in a thick coat of foreboding, which creates the illusion of momentum, even when there is none.
For those looking for stories built on right-angles and tied together with a red bow, walk past The Lower Rooms with your nose up, because you have the right. If observing curious characters interact with one another in living rooms is enough for you, then make no mistake, the film is highly watchable as a collection of character moments, just don’t expect them to add up to anything.
The Lower Rooms (2016) Directed by Barry Hunt and Nathan Wilson. Written by Eliza Anderson. Starring Lobsang Tenzin, Jena San’Cartier, Kelly Lambert, Kelly Tallent, Ty McCalister.
7 out of 10