“There’s Room then outer space with the TV planets then Heaven.”
I’m not sure a more intensely emotional film than Lenny Abrahamson‘s Room has been released in the past decade let alone this year. Nothing hits home deeper than the bond of a mother and child, but the situation novelist/screenwriter Emma Donoghue constructs for Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) increase it exponentially. Inspired to write her book after hearing about the Fritzl case in Austria where a man held his daughter captive for twenty-four years inside the walls along with their incestuous offspring—how could you not be inspired—Donoghue imbues a horrific nightmare with the light of love inexplicably born from the darkness. Nine times out of ten this story becomes a crime scene suspense thriller. This is the one that makes it about hope.
It’s easy to turn a kidnapping tale into a mystery for outsiders to solve. You don’t have to look farther than Prisoners to see the model at work. Easy money says sticking with the captive is boring and Room could have been as well if not for one major wrinkle. Despite Joy being the main victim locked away for seven years by the time we meet her, she’s not our narrator. That job falls to five-year old Jack—you do the math—a boy who’s known nothing but the four walls and a skylight trapping him from the outside world. Here he is imprisoned against his will and yet he’s happy. Jack has his TV transmitting different worlds, apples for breakfast, bedtime stories, and most especially his Ma.
What an environment to be thrust into as soon as the opening credits end: mother and child living as though there’s nothing but what’s at arm’s length. Joy was handcuffed into this direction. What would the point be telling him about the things he cannot have when the prospect of escape has proven so futile for so long? She’s made the best home she could in order to give her son a happy existence away from the reality of her pain and suffering. So Jack tells us about his birth as though an alien moving from one enclosed room within his mother to the next. Everything else is false—make-believe for story time and drawing. Discovery becomes a luxury he cannot afford and he doesn’t even know it.
Abrahamson does a wonderful job alongside cinematographer Danny Cohen shooting this space with a sense of grandeur as would exist for someone so small with nothing to compare its scale. We’re often put in Jack’s head to see through his eyes at new and wonderful things as well as potential horrors he’s yet to fully grasp such as “Old Nick’s” (Sean Bridgers) patterned visits with groceries and alone time with Ma. It’s an ingenious way to breathe new life into the abduction trope while retaining the anxiety and fear that’s palpable whenever Joy must endure her captive’s company. With Jack’s fifth birthday flipping the calendar, though, she begins noticing the boy’s curiosity has grown. Sleep isn’t as regular and questions are asked. The moment for truth telling arrives.
The film splits in half: Act One trapped alongside Joy and Jack with Act Two providing freedom’s escape. Both halves are completely different but in reverse from what we’re preconditioned to believe. For Jack escape is like walking into his imagination—one so drastically changed from what reality means to him that he asks when they can go back to “Room”. Conversely we see the struggle Joy endures after seven years were ripped away with everything she remembered moved on, including her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy). Jack goes from happiness to trepidation making its way towards joy as he acclimates to a brand new existence. Joy’s torture merely takes on a new form, her physical prison replaced by a mental one.
Jack’s narration continues in its authentically sheltered speech patterns combining a stunning level of intelligence with a stunted grasp on grammar taught by a girl ripped from society as a teenager. He speaks about what he sees—Grandma and her boyfriend Leo (Tom McCamus), new experiences in wide-open spaces, and Ma’s continued suffering. Entering the sun is as big a jolt for them as entering the room in a way that rendered it normal was for us. Abrahamson and Donoghue keep us off-balance like this by subverting expectations and allowing actions to play out without our brain’s assumptions getting in the way. We allow this young boy to escort us through the horror; his watching heinous acts with innocence we cannot match. The boy’s strength inspires throughout.
It’s an astonishing performance that gives you pause in thinking what this child was exposed to in order to deliver his emotional extremes. Tremblay is all in-the-moment instinct without a trace of artifice despite the character being so fully manufactured to fit the insane circumstances of his tragic life. He’s tempestuous and impatient—unsurprisingly considering the stress his mother goes through on a daily basis as well as the lack of resources to discipline—but just as sweet and loving while everything around him is drenched in despair. Jack epitomizes hope by merely existing let alone possessing the power to perform his unwitting acts of heroism that occur as naturally to him as breathing. Despite his origins, he’s a glowing beacon of humanity’s indestructible resolve.
His youthful malleability is exactly what Joy lacks, though. Her survival on the inside was bound to his wellbeing. She couldn’t pause to realize what was happening to her because she needed to be brave for him. She resigned herself to the nightmare so Jack wouldn’t know the nightmare existed. Larson is up to the task and more with each slip into frustration quickly turned aside for a forgiving hug to retain her son’s sense of safety despite the danger forever looming. We understand that his leaving means she never will—a fact she’s embraced. So freedom for her ultimately becomes torture because the fear that drove her forward and buried the present was gone. She was “Joy Newsome” again and that meant the nightmare was real.
These two performances are so good that it’s impossible not to overshadow the whole. Act One is all-encompassing with the escape a magnificently tense adventure into the unknown pouring out a tearfully poignant release. Act Two suffers slightly in comparison compositionally. Emotionally it’s devastatingly on-point with relationship drama and intense displays of affection making the recipients onscreen and the audience openly weep. So much needs to happen, though, that the events themselves feel rushed with characters coming and going too rapidly. Jack admits life on the outside is hurried—from the mouths of babes—but it’s rushed just the same regardless of the filmmakers acknowledging the issue. Luckily those inhabiting the chaos are strong enough to still render the hopeful light at the end of the tunnel real.
 Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay
 Joan Allen, William H. Macy and Brie Larson
 Photo Credit: George Kraychyk