A story of mother-child devotion, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s book, is a stunning exploration of commitment, love, and survival. Ma and her son Jack live in a 10-by-10 room, held there by a captor, nicknamed ‘Old Nick,’ who kidnapped Ma seven years prior. Ma tells Jack stories, creating a world of only the ‘room.’ They have a television but they’re just “pictures,” they aren’t real. What’s real is Ma, Jack, the room, what’s inside their cramped space. I shouldn’t use the article ‘the’ here because Ma and Jack don’t. Everything in room is known by its name; Lamp, Table, Bath. This creates a true world in which everything has a name and a place and plays a character in this play.
I found it interesting, if maybe a bit too on the nose, that the books Ma reads to Jack, “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Alice in Wonderland,” both strongly evoke the situations and surroundings of the two captives. It’s like Ma’s way of controlling the narrative of Jack’s life and limited world-view, while at the same time watching the television show Dora the Explorer, a story of a child venturing into the world outside. This ends up being quite a fantastic counterpoint.
Upon Jack’s 5th birthday, Ma promises Jack a real birthday cake. When all is said and done there are no candles on the cake. “You know we can’t have candles,” says Ma. But Jack’s having none of it. Anger takes over and Ma is forced to realize that it’s time to begin figuring out a way to explain to Jack what’s really happening and how to escape. The sequence that follows is the most tense, terrifying and exhilarating of anything I’ve seen this year.
Brie Larson has proven herself to be an actress with range and depth in The United States of Tara, Scott Pilgrim vs the World and especially in her breakthrough, 2013’s Short Term 12. What she does in Room though is a bar far raised and I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of Larson’s capability and future as one of the best actresses of her generation.
Newcomer Jacob Tremblay is marvelous as Jack, and he is given the monumental task of carrying the film. Told from his point of view, from his vantage point and narrated by him, this is Jack’s story of events. Tremblay balances happiness, sadness and anger with agility. He is true find.
As the film transitions into the second of its two acts, situations still provide Ma and Jack with confined spaces. Hospital rooms, bedrooms still feel like prisons yet now they do so in an almost familiar way. Jack keeps longing to go back to room; even at five years old he’s a newborn in this new world and his fear and nervousness is palpable. But it’s Ma who finds herself truly broken. Having known both sides of the world, being re-introduced to normalcy is more difficult than she imagines and she isolates herself from her family (played by the wonderful Joan Allen and William H. Macy) and even Jack.
The camera work here, very close-up and often from a child’s viewpoint is appropriately claustrophobic when it needs to be and the score is surprisingly varied, giving quiet touches to grand, fairytale-like beats that keep in line with Jack’s point of view. It’s not unlike Beasts of the Southern Wild, another film about a child’s limited world view opening up to something bigger, grander. Abrahamson’s direction finds the right balance of thriller, drama and even comedy, managing an extraordinary difficult tone that allows the full depth of the film’s emotional landscape. It’s one of the best films of the year.