Review: Room – Small Space, Big Emotions


The difficult ones.The difficult ones can be challenging films that are hard to sit through on account of their subject matter. Full of despair and cruelty, these are films that are not meant to be viewed on whim, as if decided at random when purchasing a ticket. It’s best to be an informed theater patron, but Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is best experienced knowing very little beforehand.

Here’s what you need to know. Room is based on a 2010 novel of much acclaim, critically and commercially, and involves a mother (Joy/Ma) and son (Jack) living in a single-room 10 foot by 10 foot shed with working plumbing and electricity. The furnishings are sparse: a small kitchen, a bathtub, a wardrobe closet, a twin bed, and a television set.

All Jack has ever known is Room. So he has difficulty in understanding the concept of real. The physical objects in Room are existent to touch and grab, and Ma allows Jack to believe the world outside is make believe, like what he sees on television. Together they do physical and mental exercises, try to eat healthy, and perform strict body and oral hygiene. Completing these tasks allows Jack access to the television. This provides a modicum of structure. Then Jack turns five and his life becomes more askew when he sees the world outside of Room.

From the short description and situations outlined one can derive that Joy and Jack are captives, held against their will. Their captor is Old Nick, a man who used Joy’s kindheartedness when she was nineteen to his advantage when he kidnapped her. Held against her will, Nick’s weekly visits of entering the shed and dropping off food and raping Joy follow. For the next seven years.

The first half of Room is an exercise in unforced histrionics, essentially working as a one-act play with Joy (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) going through their daily chores and routine. But the actions are far from routine as Larson, having gained notice a few years ago with her performance in Short Term 12, and Tremblay use their cramped surroundings as a means to treat Room as its own universe. But with Jack’s turning five, and whose inquisitiveness begins to make Joy more anxious, she realizes his growth will only make their situation more precarious. An escape plan is hatched that will require Joy to remain in Room, while Jack is to be rolled up in a rug and removed by Old Nick, believing him to have died from a sickness that went untreated. When he frees himself from the rug Jack is able to provide the police with enough information to rescue her. They reunite and embrace. Free.

That’s how most films would end – with an air of optimism. And that would be true of Room too, but the film is more than experiencing how a mother and son live in such cramped quarters. It’s what happens after: the post-kidnapping assimilation, the return to a normalcy that once existed for Joy and abnormal for young Jack. Having never been outside of Room, it is Jack who is better able to adapt to new surroundings, independence. His mother struggles with the trauma of the past seven years. Joy was robbed of her idyllic life as a teenager probably on her way to attending college, meeting Mr. Right, and settling down. Instead, she grows up fast and gives birth to a child, the latter a selfless act that her father (William H. Macy) can’t understand once they are reunited.

Lenny Abrahamson, the man who had actor Michael Fassbender wear a huge papiermâché head for most of his film Frank, is no stranger to subverting audience expectation. That film, which was marketed as an entertaining black comedy foremost, is still an entertaining comedy but something that also explores mental illness and the creative process of making art. Room is another subversive work from Abrahamson, who delivers on the promise of an old expression. You can never go home again.

Room is highlighted by its two leads, particularly Brie Larson. In a performance that is sure to get attention by Academy voters, her character’s importance shifts with the change in location. She is the lead character while inside of Room and then ever so slightly becomes a supporting figure as Jack gets acclimated to his new surroundings. Jacob Tremblay is doubly important as the story is told from his perspective. His acting, like Larson’s, is also unforced and entirely believable given the circumstances of the situation.

Emotionally, Joy died during those first few years inside Room. Jack’s arrival was not planned and yet his life gives her purpose to live. Someday Jack will learn of his father and fully understand the pain his mom endured all those years. Until then, he is free to be oblivious to such things, as what Ma would have wanted.

Room is a gut-punching experience that hit this writer hard. Honest and challenging it only seems right that the climatic escape incorporates music from the post-rock band This Will Destroy You. Room may not destroy you but it definitely stays with you long after the snow falls and the scene fades to black.

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer(s): Emma Donoghue, based on her novel “Room”
Notable Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy

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