The plot of Room seems like something out of Investigation Discovery’s most lurid block of scheduling: At 17, a girl was abducted, forced into a single room, where she would be imprisoned for the next seven years. For two of those years, her only companion was Old Nick, the abductor who made weekly visits to rape her. But then came her son Jack, and with him hope. And with this, Room transforms into something more complex and compelling than its brutal premise suggests.
Adapted by its source-novel’s author Emma Donoghue, Room is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, who has been raised to believe this room is the whole world. But when his mother begins to fear for his safety, she devises an escape plan that could risk both of their lives. And it all depends on a sheltered boy being incredibly brave.
As you might expect, Room is a dark drama that deals with sexual abuse and trauma. Yet it is not bleak. Instead, it’s a film about hope and the healing power of love that is remarkably layered in its details and emotion. Brie Larson delivers a soul-shaking performance (as she did in Short Term 12). As Jack’s Ma, she is many things. She is his rock, building stories to keep him from dark truths. She is his protector, cajoling Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) to stay away from the tiny cupboard where Jack sleeps while the heinous man does his dirty business. She is warm, cuddling and playing with the boy within the four-confining walls, making it more of a home than you’d imagine. But she’s also a girl who remembers what was before room, resents this life, and sometimes loses patience with her ever-present roommate. Larson realizes all of this beautifully, while playing opposite child actor Jacob Tremblay, who—like his onscreen Ma—is earning Oscar buzz.
Remarkably, it’s on Tremblay’s shoulders that the movie rests. He is our hero, and his voiceover constructs the reality that will be shattered once his mom’s plan kicks into action. There’s a profound sadness rendered from this approach, because as adults, we the audience, comprehend Jack’s situation in a way he has no ability to do. We ache for him, even when he doesn’t know to ache for himself. To his credit, Tremblay manages an incredible transformation during the narrative. In room, Jack feels safe, and so hollers and laughs and tumbles as a five-year-old does. But once room is behind him, the world is too big, too unknown, too scary. And he shuts down. From here, Room turns from thriller to family-drama, and in a way that feels earned and exciting. The escape—revealed in the trailers—is really just the beginning for Jack and Ma.
Director Lenny Abrahamson, who previously earned praise for the Michael Fassbender-fronted dramedy Frank, adds some crucial visual flare to Jack’s escape. A bright color correct and flashes of light put the viewer in the mindset of a boy who’s only known sunlight through a dusty skylight. The audio warps as it overwhelms him and jars us. Abrahamson deserves credit for guiding an incredible cast that includes Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus, and Amanda Brugel as a standout cop. But Abrahamson’s best contribution is the way he establishes little details that clue viewers into a reality Jack doesn’t understand. For instance, Ma’s kitchen knife is so dull she needs both hands to force it through an apple, and the blade’s point is snipped blunt. Likewise she and Jack have long, long hair. As if it’s never been cut by scissors. We realize Old Nick would never allow her something that could be used as a weapon. And so another piece of this tragedy falls into place so gently, it’d never disturb a daydreaming Jack.
I worried when I sat down for this movie it’d be too much tear-jerking drama for me to handle. But Room refuses to lean into the more ghastly details of its story. It’s not about those. It’s about a boy and his ma, and how their relationship saves them both. Rich with emotion as it is hope, Room is a rare celebration of the mother-son bond, intertwined with an escape narrative that will have you holding your breath. In a word, it’s sensational.