What if a child spent his entire existence living in a single room? What if this child was suddenly released into the world? How would he adjust to this new environment? How would this affect his psyche? Room, Lenny Abrahamson’s harrowing but sensitively-told drama is an exploration of these questions as well as a powerful look at the unwavering bonds parents forge with their children.
Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own best-selling novel, Room tells the story of Joy (Brie Larson), a young woman who was kidnapped when she was 17, and has spent the last seven years locked away in a 10×10 shed with her indelible 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who she bore while living in captivity. Since Jack was born in the shed, and has never been able to leave its confines, the shed (which he calls “Room”) and all its entities, are all he knows of the universe. Everything else, as Ma explains, is not real. Not the people on the tiny old TV; not the snow on the skylight; not even the animals he sees in pictures on the storybooks he reads. Sometimes, Jack will see “Old Nick,” (Sean Bridgers), the man who abducted Ma all those years ago. Old Nick only visits to bring Ma and Jack food, and to routinely abuse Ma while she hides Jack in a closet to keep him safe.
While life inside “Room” may be a natural thing to Jack, it’s the complete opposite for Joy/Ma. This is her prison, and a traumatic ordeal she has had to survive through for the last seven years. Although rotting away—both physically and psychologically—Ma does her best to keep Jack’s innocence alive by reading him books, playing games with him, having him do exercises and even baking birthday cakes for him. At times, she gets frustrated with his inability to understand the world, especially since everything he knows about it is just “Room.” but that’s understandable considering the abhorring situation they’re in. Moreover, she knows that as he grows older, wiser, and more curious, things are only going to get rougher.
Part of what makes Room such an intimate experience is the way Abrahamson constructs a sense of claustrophobia around his characters. On the flip side, he also successfully visualizes Jack’s imagination by shooting the film from the boy’s perspective, finding imaginative ways to depict the boy’s interactions with things we find mundane. But Abrahamson’s strengths as a filmmaker truly come to the forefront after mother and child escape “Room.” If you think I just revealed a major spoiler, then I can assure I have not spoiled a thing. This development in every trailer of the film, as well as in every plot description of the film you will find. It also didn’t affect my experience of the picture. Indeed, I’d argue that this is the central conceit of the film: How will Jack engage with an entirely new world after living in a confined space for his entire life? Will Ma ever be able to find a semblance of normalcy after the seven years of trauma that obliterated her life?
The heart and soul of Room rests in the prodigious performances of Larson and Tremblay. Since Room is mostly depicted from the point of view of Jack, Tremblay’s performance is vital for the film to work. Child performances often tend to fall victim to the loathsome Adorably Precocious Child, Cheerful Child or Constantly Curious Child tropes but Tremblay’s performance is thankfully none of those, succeeding at being both heartfelt and naturalistic. As impressive as Tremblay is, it’s Larson’s layered and quietly devastating performance that holds the picture together. Devoid of showy speeches and histrionics, the actress is superlative as a woman who refuses to be a victim, steadfastly sacrificing her emotions for the sake of protecting her child from the horrors of the world. She’s even better during the second act when she has to juggle with protecting her child in a brand new world that isn’t exactly friendly to her while also maintaining her sanity, and coming to terms with the fact that while the physical trauma may be over, its psychological effects will always linger.
Considering its emotional story, Room could have easily slipped into saccharine the way films like Pay It Forward and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close did but it avoids those minefields deftly with its restrained direction, unsentimental storytelling and naturalistic performances. At its heart, this is a beautiful and tender depiction of a relationship between a parent and her child, and a melancholic look at how we make connections with others in even the most dire of circumstances.
Running time: 118 minutes
Rating: R (for language)