Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Screenplay: Emma Donoghue
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy
Runtime: 118 Minutes
There's a moment in the first act of Room in which entrapped mother Joy "Ma" Newsome (Brie Larson) tries to explain to her 5-year-old son the gravity of the horrifying situation that they have been facing for the past 7 years, only to be met with the exclaimed cries of disbelief from young Jack (Jacob Tremblay) that anything can exist outside of 'Room'. Wishing to be told a different story - one more hopeful that corresponds with the world that he has always known - he's told with adamant fury by “Ma” that this is the story he's getting.
Room is a film of extraordinary standing because of its ability to take something as dark and unsettling as its subject matter, namely wrongful, prolonged imprisonment and parentage born of rape, and from it make something so beautiful and life-affirming that stands triumphantly in the face of the horrors of reality.
Lenny Abrahamson is a director who has tackled the nature of difficult and disturbing issues with 2012’s What Richard Did, but a majority of his feature films have conversely dealt with the expanse and wonder in the world as seen through the eyes of outsiders looking into everyday culture, such as Garage and 2014’s terrific musical ode Frank. Room might be his most perfectly realised vision to date, a near faultless marriage of these two themes into something new, stirring and passionately told.
Abrahamson’s direction inside of the enclosed space of the titular ‘Room’ is close, familiar but never totally alien to either its characters or the audience, and all the more poignant once the action moves into the outside world. Handheld, pressing yet blindingly bright, he shows us a world through unseen eyes, incredibly offering up a fresh perspective of the beauty and massiveness of the world that we might take for granted. The first reveal of the sky to the young Jack is a moment of thunderous growth in the films visual language, an explosive declaration that blows all the oxygen back into the room in a single breath of alleviation.
The story of Jack’s entrance into the world is a perfect counter to Joy’s rehabilitation into society, like a child being born in the wrong place of his life with a developed understanding of himself and reality already in place. The narration by Jack, although not always a present narrative device, is a beautiful representation of the optimism to be taken in exploring his new environments that feel so natural to our own, along with his amazement at the lack of restriction the outside world offers, taking advantage of the excesses and granted pleasures of everyday existence.
If there’s a price to pay in his development, it’s due to his animalistic instincts to attach himself to his mother, the only person he has ever known. “Ma” has done her best to make their prison into an entire world upon itself for young Jack, and you feel the difficulties of having to explain to a child the differences between the realities and fictions of the television he has been raised with, not knowing quite how to “play” properly without looking into a screen that he has become so accustomed too. Adapting the screenplay from her own novel, Emma Donoghue’s account of this inspired by life story is a gorgeous exploration of existentialism in its most elementary of readings, the evidence taken in from ‘room’ poetically described by “Ma” as being the “proof that we were here.”
The darkness of the story operates more like a subtext to the films more magnified cosmology. Joy’s journey and reconciliation with her tortured family life are seen in glimpses of arguments through open doors, never understating the complications of what a life after such trauma would honestly be like in the western world. Joy has a passionate love for her son regardless of his haunting parentage, but her roughness with him gives an impression that he has been more of a companion and life raft for her than anything else. His very presence an unintentional reminder to every one of the heartbreak and damage caused by its unexplored villain, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers).
Brie Larson has been an outstanding performer on the cusp of mainstream attention for years now, but her role here is so genuine in its emotional perseverance and conflict that she matches the struggle of Joy perfectly in every desperate confrontation. Jacob Tremblay, as the young Jack, is just as astonishing in this shared leading role. He demonstrates a masterful handling of such bleak and emotionally tender material, offering an understanding of his character that never appears limited or falsified in any regard, and is undoubtedly one of the best performances to be seen this year. The work from Joan Allen, Tom McCamus and William H. Macy is understated but similarly agonising in their portrayal of parents readjusting to their new family unit.
Ultimately, even in the face of the bleakness of its origins and influences, Room is not a story that wishes to wallow in the revulsion of its circumstances, but one that wishes to grow and move on from the experiences of its two central victims. Much of this is echoed throughout Stephen Rennick's profoundly moving score, which evolves with layers of density and imaginative understanding alongside the mindscape of young Jack. Its confidence, idealism and heart-warming cheerfulness is never saccharine, or unjustly spread across its surface, but something that swells and bleeds from its heart with sureness and elegance in its vision. The work by Abrahamson and co. is the best that this harrowing, yet rewarding tale deserves – a film small in design, but one that feels as big as the universe itself.