The world is a bad enough place for a parent to explain to a child. But what if the world is no bigger than a small room, visited by a monster every other night? How do you hang on there to love, humanity or childhood?
Ma (Larson) and Jack (Tremblay) find a way in a beautifully told story based on a novel written by Emma Donaghue after hearing about the five-year-old boy Felix in the Fritzl kidnapping case, where a woman was held captive for 24 years by her father, repeatedly raped by him and delivered seven children.
Ma, or rather Joy, has spent seven years in captivity (from the time she was 17 to 24), held and raped in a garden shed by a man she calls Old Nick (Bridgers) — she doesn’t know his name. Five of those years have been made more bearable by the presence of her son from him, Jack.
The film opens to a usual day for them, involving a small cot shared by the two, a bathtub where they bathe together, a sink, a dining table, a small kitchen area, and a wardrobe where Jack is hidden away when Nick comes for his nightly round. Soon after, we realise it’s Jack’s birthday — he has turned five — and Ma and he bake a cake together that he refuses to eat because she can’t arrange candles.
The novel as well as the film is told from the perspective of Jack. In the hands of cinematographer Danny Cohen and director Abrahamson, the room, a tiny space by any imagination, expands and expands to encompass his world. In that enclosure, Ma and Jack have their reading classes, he draws, he watches TV, he exercises, he runs “track” (from wall to wall, on Ma’s instruction), eats his vitamins, and must brush his teeth before bed. What he sees on TV for him is the “TV world”, “not real”. What he has in Room (always without “the”, an entity of own) is the only thing real, including Nick.
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The room weighs down Ma at times, but not Jack, who constantly finds things to be fascinated by, including the sun streaming in through the skylight, the shadows it makes, the vapour of his breath on a cold day, the screams they direct at the skylight and a vent for “aliens” to hear, or an amazing afternoon when a mouse finds its way in for bits of his cake.
An episode with Nick, however, makes Ma fear that this arrangement can’t last, and having tried other modes of escape before, she thinks that somehow getting Jack out and him alerting others is her only chance. They first fake an illness, and Tremblay is achingly good in how frightened he is at the thought of pulling off this lie and making it to the world outside — it’s been only days since Ma has told him that what he sees on TV actually exists. “Can we do this when I am 6?” Jack asks.
When that fails, Ma tells Jack to play dead, and be carried out wrapped in a carpet — another episode shot in an almost frenzied fright as the mother and son don’t dare speak the unspoken, and the audience holds its breath.
The first part of Room ends with Jack’s flight — almost too quickly. The rest, dealing with their life in the world outside, is more predictable, more practical.
However, you have to appreciate the filmmaker’s effort to not end where everyone would have gone home with a warm feeling in the heart. Donaghue (the screenwriter) realises and Abrahamson does too that Room would linger on for Jack and Ma for long after. It’s in the difficult steps they take putting it behind — not great cinema perhaps but essential storytelling — that Room eventually becomes just four walls.
The film is nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress for Larson. Tremblay deserves a category of his own, for giving us Jack. When he tells his grandmother (Allen), who is almost too afraid to ask if the room wasn’t too small, that “Room went in every direction… it never finished”, it isn’t just she who wants to believe.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen