Room: a new perspective on survival
It’s a story that’s become depressingly familiar. A young girl crying on the news, a man hauled off in handcuffs, neighbors left to wonder how it could have gone on so long in their own backyards without anyone noticing. “Room,” the recently announced Best Picture nominee, tells the fictionalized story of a kidnapped woman and the son she raises in captivity. Somehow, buried in this dark premise, the film finds an optimistic vein of hope.
The script for “Room,” adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own 2010 novel, preserves the central conceit of its source. The story unfolds not from the perspective of the kidnapped woman but instead through the eyes of Jack, her five-year-old son, played by Jacob Tremblay. Born and raised in a minuscule soundproof shack, Jack knows nothing of the world outside. The only light comes through a cloudy skylight window. The young mother, known only as Ma, played by Brie Larson, has explained away their glitchy television as signals from another planet and invading animals as one-of-a-kind creatures.
This alien perspective creates a staggering disconnect for the audience. Though viewers realize the claustrophobia-inducing size of the titular room, director Lenny Abrahamson uses creative angles to show how it could really be an entire universe to someone who knows nothing else. Furthermore, Jack does not realize the horror of his mother’s situation, prompting some truly infuriating moments in which he acts like a petulant child.
The emotional strain on Larson’s character is decimating, to say nothing of the sexual abuse she suffers from Old Nick, her kidnapper. Abrahamson keeps this abuse off-screen, mirroring Jack’s ignorance as he hides in a cabinet. In an era when sexual violence is increasingly prevalent on television and other media, it’s refreshing to see a film that deals with the consequences without actually depicting the crime.
“Room” begins on Jack’s fifth birthday, as Ma begins to tell him the truth about the outside. She crafts a plan for him to fake illness and escape. In a different film, this pursuit of freedom would likely take up the entire runtime. Here — and this is no spoiler — Jack and Ma’s liberation occurs midway through. Though the audience may share Jack’s disorientation, the sense of relief is palpable when mother and son wake up in a sun-dappled hospital.
The rest of the film deals with their struggle to adjust to a quote-unquote normal life. Joy, Jack’s Ma returning to her birth name, grapples with losing seven years of her young adulthood to a random act of depravity. Jack is distrustful of all the new people and places in his life and yearns to return to Room, which he sees as his home. Even after their liberation, the scope of the story remains limited, adding a few new characters but mostly staying confined to Joy’s childhood home. Though Joy has been physically set free, she still feels trapped by the psychological trauma she endured. It’s rare to see a mainstream film treat mental health with such nuance; hopefully it will inspire others to do the same.
The relationship between the two leads is what propels the film forward. Made up of the same highs and lows of any parent-child relationship, it feels authentic. As Jack, Tremblay’s performance never feels cloying, and his dialogue avoids any artificial cuteness as well. Brie Larson is revelatory as Joy. She portrays a strong woman, not in a one-dimensional ass-kicking sense, but as a complex, determined survivor. Even as she projects certain emotions outwards to other characters, she hints at the depth of feeling behind those fronts. Joy and Jack rely on each other equally to make it through their hardship, and their bond is unbreakable.
“Room” is a dark story, but it ultimately reaches an inspiring conclusion. As the camera pans skyward in the final shot, the audience finally feels the freedom for which the characters fought so hard. In an age when Oscar bait is easily recognizable, this film earns every award nomination, not to mention every tear of joy shed by the viewer.
Originally published on NDSMCObserver