When most films approach a story, be it fantasy or ripped from the headlines, there is a certain pattern to their rhythms that give audiences shorthand familiarity and understanding. It provides comfort and immediate access for the viewer but it can also expand the yawning chasm between observer and character—the more you know that there are strings, the less likely it is you’ll invest in Pinocchio’s plight.
That is why movies as expressive as Room can be so revelatory. The subject matter is a grotesquely tragic one that’s become common in our news cycles. Yet, the sideways perspective taken by the filmmakers and performers creates a cinematic experience that I can say is uniquely unlike any other. There is no distance from these characters here. In fact, we’re tripping over their nightmare and wonderment in a space as small as an 12-by-12 foot room.
The portrait of Ma and her son Jack living in Room could have been one as horrific as too many recent news stories: a young woman who was abducted by a stranger (and evil incarnate) has lived the past seven years of her life trapped in a tool shed that has been retrofitted as a prison with barely any sunlight sprinkling down from the tiny skylight. And her only companion besides her nightly jailor, who comes to her bed in the evening, is the five-year-old son who she likely had to birth in the dark.
Nevertheless, Room is a hopeful, touching, and profoundly moving film because it eschews the salacious movie-of-the-week impulses such narratives might present storytellers less gifted than director Lenny Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue.
Adapting from her own novel of the same name, Donoghue imagines the lifetime in a box not from captive Joy’s perspective but rather that of her son Jack. For five years, “Room” is all he has ever known. To him it is the world, and one as magical as that of any other for a young child. And for Joy, that indescribable childhood happiness and perseverance is what allows her to make “Room” a home, even while neighboring a subdivision in the depths of hell.
A deceptively simple story about the life of Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay), Room is a record of how a child copes with growing up in the most unforgiving of environments: he is told the images on his TV of other people are all make-believe aliens, and his mother must find ways to nurture him without revealing that his biological father (who they call Old Man Nick) is also his boogeyman. It is a true reversal of such bedtime stories since as Joy is forced to take Nick to her bed, Jack must find salvation and safety inside their tiny closet.
Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) is a nebulous presence in Jack’s life, an enigma he is never allowed to glimpse even as he offers Jack insidious birthday presents. The remarkable thing is that Jack maintains a tangible innocence while his mother must constantly deal with the slaughter of her own. She finds ways to educate and entertain a son’s malnourished mind and body… and slowly eases him to understanding the concept of a world larger than 144 square feet. He’ll need to if he is to ever escape.
It is not a spoiler to suggest that they do escape. As attested in the marketing, half the film is about how Ma and Jack attempt to pick up a normal life outside in a world that is too massive for the son to comprehend. The beauty of the film, however, is that only in Jack’s first awareness of sunlight and trees does the eternal damage sink in for Ma and the life she left behind, which is forever shattered.
Room is a stunning moment meant for dark theaters. Abrahamson visually composes the titular “Room,” as Jack affectionately calls it, with the kind of care usually deemed necessary for sweeping landscape shots. In fact, this is their landscape, and its simultaneous vastness and claustrophobia makes the eventual release of the real world all the more shocking. An autumn day driving down a suburban street takes on the scope of interplanetary travel.
In realizing this lifestyle, both Larson and young Tremblay are fantastic and well worth remembering during awards season. Larson must convey the constant sorrow and anguish of her situation while never once letting Jack fully understand its complete implications. She must even push back against her son whose obliviousness and stubborn love for “Room” is a constant albatross around her and our neck. This is a layered performance that only expands its full breadth in the film’s third act when “Room” is a never-too-distant memory.
Still, this is Tremblay’s movie. The young performer provides the eyes through which we see his prison as a home, and Jack’s journey into the real world is what allows a cathartic release of fear, relief, and possibly even tears. He and Larson’s chemistry as a strained mother and son never hits a false note. And indeed, between this film and Short Term 12, Larson has displayed the genuine ability to provoke empathy in young performers and the moviegoers who watch them.
Also standing out in the supporting cast is Joan Allen as Nancy, Joy’s mother who is given both wonderful and horrible news all at once about her daughter’s fate seven years later.
Ultimately, Room is an experience that juxtaposes light and dark, and youthful heaven with grown-up despairs in almost every frame. It is a remarkable achievement of cinema. And it should be seen.