Told from the perspective of a child, Room speaks to the strength of children faced with trauma so profound, more experienced adults might crack under its pressure. The sixth full-length from director Lenny Abrahamson is a film full of hope packaged in a grim plot based on the book by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the script. We meet Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson), as she treats him to his fifth birthday. But there are many odd things in the lead-up to the celebration. She only has a toaster oven in a tiny room to bake the cake. There are no friends or family coming over, and, most devastating to Jack, there are no candles for the cake. He throws a tantrum and refuses to partake of the cake knowing how incomplete it is. Ma suggests that possibly next year there will be candles. That’s wholly up to what groceries are brought to them by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers).
It turns out Jack and his mother live in an 11 by 11 foot space, and they can’t get out, sealed in by a coded lock on the only door. It’s a space that Jack and Ma don’t call home but “room.” Though the scene is presented as blissful up to the tantrum, with big orchestral music, and Jack running around the room saying good morning to the sink and furniture, the film makes no pretense to maintain this artificial pleasantry. That’s only to be found in the inner world of Jack, who has acclimated to growing up in this room all his life because it’s all he knows. Seven years earlier, his Ma was kidnapped and imprisoned in this room by a sexual predator: Nick. You get the picture.
The film unfolds smartly, and is far less meandering than Abrahamson’s previous film, Frank. The child’s questions drive the film’s drama, and Jack has a lot of questions. His developing awareness serves as rather keen exposition, revealing the details of how he and his mother get on but also how they quietly suffer at the hands of Nick. But they are not just victims. They are a loving, single-parent household whose home happens to be a small space. Even with no one else to talk to, Ma finds a way to socialize her son and — most importantly — teach him empathy. Even if they aren’t alive, he expresses appreciation to inanimate objects in room. In one scene, he thanks the toilet “for making poo disappear.”
It’s all well and good that he learns to be polite, but these are objects. They can never respond. The loss of interaction with another living, breathing, thinking person besides his protective mother and hiding from the man who kidnapped her makes it hard when he is out. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the two are rescued. Even though the commercials and trailer reveal that they make it out, the escape is still a harrowing moment. Sounds and simple visuals, like power lines whizzing overhead from Jack’s POV capture his distress and over stimulation by an outside world he never knew existed until he makes it outside room via a frightening scheme devised by Ma.
But Jack will bounce back. The film is about suffering but also about people adjusting and growing accustomed to extreme circumstances. A child is especially interesting to watch cope. As a doctor tells his mother, “The best thing you could have done is get him out while he was still plastic.” The boy whispers to his mother, “I’m not made of plastic.” The defiance is charming in its naiveté. After all, the film’s concern is about empowering the child with his immaturity, and the filmmakers stay focused on Jack’s perspective, to the film’s benefit. The cinematography works great on the level of Jack. Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen capture the boy’s perspective maintaining the camera low and tight on the boy. A shallow focus that blurs out background captures Jack intimately, bringing the audience in to relate on his level. Stephen Rennicks’ heavy orchestral score stands in contrast to the little space and the intimate drama. What adults might consider banal, like existing in the moment when sun seeps through a skylight, are big moments for a child, and the music rightly reflects that.
Larson brings great humanity to her performance, working off the boy’s plasticity as a hardened and traumatized woman who suffered through her teenage years as a captive. She responds to Jack’s pain but also his growth as a woman who finds it more difficult to let go of her trauma even as Jack grows nostalgic for their alone time together. Tremblay is also great, and there’s talk of making him the youngest person to ever receive an Oscar nomination. It’s a cute milestone, but I’m not on board because, as I explained in the paragraph above, there is a lot of cinematic direction that focuses on the child, inducing the viewer’s empathy and also creating the performance. He’s still a child acting as a child should, and credit is also due to the writer, director and even the editor for creating a performance specific to a drama that a child could not possibly understand without suffering some psychological trauma. That’s how child acting works.
And you have to hand it to Donoghue, who brings her prowess with words to the big screen brilliantly, from the honest words out of the mouth of a child, to the complicated feelings that come after trauma. Ma breaks down at one point in front of Jack, during their time adjusting to the real world, and confesses to her little boy, “I’m not a good enough ma.” The boy responds, “But you’re Ma.” It’s a simple exchange, and it’s one of several moments that will draw the tears from the audience (no wonder it won the People’s Choice award in Toronto).
The film has charm while still exploring disturbingly dark subject matter. The love between Ma and Jack is strong, and the film leaves no gaps to ever question that. When Jack meets his grandfather, Robert (William H. Macy), who can’t seem to bear touching the boy due to his lineage. There’s no question who the viewer will side with when Ma blows up at her dad when he can’t look the boy in the eye at dinner. But it works as this young mother adjusts to a lost childhood with her parents.
However, in the film’s only real flagrant misstep in melodrama, a reporter sits down with Ma to hurl loaded questions in a patronizing demeanor that would be far from ethical or even believable on TV (even Nancy Grace is protective of victims). Here Room falls off the deep end to present a cartoonish, flat character designed as plot device to reach an artificial climax for a story that is actually quite complex. There are still many years to cover as far as looming trauma and drama. It’s still a only a piece of a film and a forgivable dramatic miscalculation in what is otherwise a charming indie film sure to be remembered come awards season.
Room runs 118 minutes and is rated R (it has references to violence and harsh language). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Oct. 30, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It then expands to other theaters on Nov. 6, including the independent art house O Cinema Wynwood. For other screening dates across the U.S., jump through this link. A24 provided all images to illustrate this post and invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.