A tale that defies the boundaries of drama, Room cleverly contrives a sensational survivor’s story that is never saccharine or overwrought with emotion. Instead, this adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel of the same name both gives us a sense of the terror of the situation and of the human ability to rise above the fear and overcome it with the strength of maternal love and the bonds of family.
A significant portion of the film takes place in the eponymous “room”, a shed in the backyard of Old Nick’s (Sean Bridgers) house, who kidnapped a woman seven years previously. The woman, Ma (Brie Larson), has a five year old child named Jack (Jacob Tremblay) whose only experience of the outside world is through a TV with spotty reception. As Jack’s curiosity grows and Old Nick’s appetites become more violent, Ma decides it’s time to start planning an escape.
The setting is incredibly well designed, visually producing an impression of survival at its most human. The cramped room is decorated with pictures and given a single skylight to remind Ma of what she’s lost and fuel Jack’s imagination. Everything about it screams escapism, foreshadowing the later part of the film.
Ma’s portrayal by Larson is a star turn of epic proportions. It’s clear that she wants to give in and allow these events to beat her down, but she holds on for Jack’s sake. When they escape later in the film, her story arc shows what happens when there is finally somebody else to be the responsible one, and it’s heartbreaking to see the relief that comes with such freedom.
Tremblay’s Jack is a treasure in more ways than one. Very rarely does a child actor come along with such ability for depth and the capacity to capture both very alien and very human behaviors. In many ways he also plays below the character’s age as he discovers the world for the first time, but he does so without becoming irritating or a parody.
In many ways, these performances draw heavily from stories of the Fritzl case, a situation where a woman was imprisoned and raped by her father for 24 years, giving birth to seven children before her escape in 2008. While Elisabeth’s privacy is scrupulously cared for these days for obvious reasons, what reports there are tell the story of slow healing and a boundless wonderment on the part of the three children who remained imprisoned with her during the ordeal.
So much of the film, produced by the same A24 Films/DirecTV partnership that scored hits this year with Ex Machina and The End of the Tour, contrasts the adult need to heal with the resilience of children as we see Jack take much of what is happening in stride. In many ways, he is walking into what he had considered a fantasy world glimpsed only through episodes of Dora the Explorer and the tiny skylight in the room. His previous life was the only life he knew, not trauma, though having him be the audience’s point of view character makes it clear that that didn’t make it free from pain. Ma, on the other hand, is returning to something that she had given up on and it instead feels unreal. She is not as able to embrace the fantasy as easily as Jack is, unwilling to risk losing it once again.
On paper, Room sounds either oppressive, frightful, or boring, but the execution on screen is none of those things. Instead, it is a detailed examination of the human heart that nonetheless avoids sentimentality and melodrama. It feels real without giving in to the shorthand of making reality grim. Moreover, the story takes genre tropes from horror and drama and uses them in service of a tale about familial love and the bonds that can never be broken.
Room is now playing in theatres.