Though “Room” is based on a best-selling 2010 book by Emma Donoghue, it bares resemblance to any number of real world tragedies, most particularly the frightful case of the Cleveland man who abducted three women and kept them imprisoned for a decade, an act of such human ugliness it still, frankly, seems unfathomable. So does “Room.” Joy (Brie Larson) has been held captive in a soundproofed shed for seven years and given birth to a son named Jack (Jacob Tremblay) in the midst of this unwillingly imposed sentence, acting as his selfless caretaker even amidst nightly visits from her kidnapper, whom mother and son refer to only as Old Nick (Sean Bridger). Despite his role as a tormenter and rapist, the latter of which is suggested but never seen, that moniker actually makes him sound more like a twisted version of Santa Claus. And that makes it sound like the film fails to treat a severely grave subject with the proper perspective. But “Room”, while profoundly harrowing, makes a choice not to wallow in sadism, just as Joy chooses not to allow her son full grasp of their circumstances. Instead, she encourages him to view existence through the lens of the fantastical, and that is “Room’s” primary viewpoint – through the eyes of a child.
The title is at once literal and metaphorical. The ostensible cell in which they are marooned is just a shed, with a bed and a sink and a toilet and a skylight. This is plainly laid out before us. But in the mind of Jack, who is turning five as the film opens, this shed is Room. Not a room, not the room, just…Room. It’s like the title of a fairytale he’s composing in his mind. Indeed, the oft-idyllic music combined with Jack’s quixotic voiceovers, which sound like something JM Barrie might have penned, evoke a storybook feel. Look no further than the paper sailing ship floating in the toilet tank, one conspicuously absent its cover. Director Lenny Abrahamson doesn’t gussy this up Michel Gondry-style, bringing the toilet flotilla to life; he just lets it lie there, allowing Jack’s enthusiasm to do the work for us.
Abrahamson underscores this land of make believe by never actually revealing the entirety of the room in a single shot. Rather he shows it in bits and pieces, and from varying angles, rendering it limitless. The wardrobe in which Jack sleeps, to keep him away from Old Nick, seen from the inside, feels vast, a virtual cavern of protection. When it's seen later, starkly and as is, it looks incomprehensibly tiny, a reminder of how cinema can bend and shape what we see just like a child's imagination.
Yet the film never gets carried away in the whimsical. Larson’s performance is constructed of weary steel, always – always – reflective of their plight’s reality even as she does all she can to make existence tenable for her son. And even when her character is happiest, Larson maintains a physical fatigue, like the moment a rambunctious Jack runs his brand new remote control car right over her foot. She just sits there, unaffected, both because of the physical and emotional pain she has endured for so long. Everything is bottled up. There is nowhere else for anything to go. No place to hide and scream. If Jack retreats within himself, she’s essentially exposed, surrendered to her own situation even as she battles viciously to protect her son’s.
The turning point, however, is when Jack turns five, doubling as the moment when Joy realizes he can’t exist in a fantasyland forever. He will outgrow Room. To survive, he has to get out; they have to get out. The sequence in which this takes place is so heartrending that mentioning its existence will in no way dampen its immense power. I swear it. The scene generates not just nearly-impossible-to-bear tension but palpable exhilaration, practically erupting from the screen in equal amounts, the sensation of a boy trapped for so long encountering the whole wide world at the exact same moment he is made to try and manage something impossible.
From this point forward, “Room”, opening up to take in the whole world that mother and son were forced to deny for so long, becomes something more familiar, a familial drama where a daughter struggles mightily with re-entry into an everyday that simultaneously is and is not ordinary. Yet even as she struggles, her son stays strong. If the opening half could have transformed into something callous, the back half could have yielded something overly-sentimental, and yet in each case it is the innocence of Jack that saves it, conveyed by Tremblay in a performance of such purity I’d prefer not to analyze or rhapsodize and just let it be.
There is a shot of him done up in a hat and sunglasses and surgical mask, intended to protect him from the worldly toxins he has never encountered, and it’s a moment that could have played differently, Elephant Man as tyke or the little brother in “A Christmas Story”. Instead he bounds about without a complete absence of self-consciousness that only a five year old can have. It’s not exactly that Joy becomes a less important character as “Room” progresses; it’s that she loses sense of her sole seven-year purpose. The distance between her and the world grows once she’s actually out in it, and she drifts, off toward the horizon, like a young kid might who has swum past the point of the last buoy. Jack rescues her, unwittingly, just as he did in Room.
The older we get, the more scars we accrue, the more it sharpens our emotional armor, the more equipped we are deal with the worst life has to give. Or so we think. It’s true, I suppose, most of the time, but if “Room” proves anything, it’s that an adolescent’s ability to adapt is nonpareil.