Many of us have had the experience of returning to a place we know from childhood. A place that once served as the stage for everything we knew, and suddenly, looks very small. Room stars Brie Larson as a woman we know only as “Ma” in the first act of this movie, because that’s the only context a five-year-old boy has of his mother. She is not a person with her own name, and her own history, and her thoughts and moods. We begin our lives as inherently selfish, and only gradually to we come to realize that everyone else’s inner lives are as rich as our own. They don’t just revolve around us.
Jack and Ma live in “Room,” which need not be classified as a room because it’s the only room Jack has ever been in, and the only one he knows about. Unlike most of us, who early on learn to distinguish between the bedroom and the bathroom and the living room, for Jack, there is just room. When Room begins, he believes that this room is all their is of the world, and everything else is “just TV.”
While the circumstances that put Jack and Ma in this predicament are far from universal, the film serves as a metaphor for feelings and relationships we’ve all experienced. Even if we’re not literally trapped in one room for the first five years of our lives, the world as we experience it in childhood is very, very small. Most of our time is spent at home with a caregiver — probably a parent — eating and learning and playing games. Parents create fictions for their kids in order to soften the harsher blows of reality, and gradually reveal the truth as they get older. Then, suddenly, there are moments when we realize the world is much bigger than we previously believed. Often, we wish we could go back to when it felt safe and simple and small. Room occasionally injects itself with a shot of menace through the presence of Old Nick, Ma’s captor (and Jack’s biological father, though he’s far from paternal toward the boy). On the whole, however, writer Emma Donoghue (adapting her own novel very faithfully) and director Lenny Abrahamson are more interested in what makes Jack and Ma’s lives similar to most mothers and sons, rather than the horrifying details that set them apart from those of us who haven’t been locked in a shed for seven years.
Room is intentionally claustrophobic, both because its first act is set entirely within the confines of Room, and also because the film locks us into Jack’s juvenile point of view. The bulk of the film is not about Jack and Ma’s time together in captivity, but what happens following their hasty exit strategy. In the moment many films would use as a happy ending, this one is just beginning. We learn that Ma is actually Joy Newsome, daughter of Robert (William H. Macy) and Nancy (Joan Allen), abducted as a teenage girl by a man who baited her with an invented sick dog.
Room makes room for a lot of the elements you’d expect from a story about a kidnap victim’s homecoming — fear, anger, depression, and of course, thorough hounding from the media — but only in its periphery, because we experience it through Jack, who may get the gist of what’s going on but doesn’t really understand what any of this means. All he knows is that the world is suddenly colossal and terrifying, and now he’s competing with a lot of new factors for Ma’s attention.In a sense, this is a brave choice on the part of the filmmakers — one that clearly follows the example of its source material, which was written entirely in Jack’s voice from his point of view. But it also somewhat limits the dramatic impact of this movie, as we get only glimpses of the juicy stuff we can’t help but want to know about, like what happens to Old Nick after he’s caught by the police, and how Joy is going to reacclimate to being a young woman of the real world. (I wouldn’t want this to become an episode of Law & Order: SVU, but there might have been a clever way to satisfy both requirements.) We get little bits of information here and there, but not enough to flesh out all the intricacies Joy must be facing upon her return. Room focuses primarily on Jack’s journey, which, between the two, is a lot less complicated.
Despite its subject matter, Room is not ultimately a story that tackles grand ideas or big moments. In scenes that might be tense if handled by another director, Room goes for a more lighthearted touch. (The score, by Stephen Rennicks, is a little more upbeat than I’d like.) Its best scenes are the quieter moments, like the one in which Jack first learns to trust Nancy’s new beau Leo (Tom McCamus), or the growing relationship between the grandmother who only just learned she was a grandmother and the grandson she never knew about. There are a handful of dark moments, but Room dwells more on love and hope. Children have an astounding resilience when it comes to accepting hard truths and adapting to new challenges. They’re the reason we push aside past tragedies and carry on, when we might rather just give up. I might have preferred the film to keep us more in the dark about certain elements, like Ma’s backstory, until after their great escape. In several moments, Joy’s emotions feel understated, in part because we’re meant to focus on Jack. But since we’re missing key moments of her experience, we miss out on what feels like essential character development. Whether Room intends to or not, it’s telling a much bigger story than the one we ultimately get; even if showing it from Jack’s perspective is a novel approach, we can’t help but feel a little cheated when so many other characters have more complicated and nuanced perspectives. Both the script and Abrahamson’s direction ultimately split the difference between keeping us in a five-year-old mindset and letting us in on the real world of the adults. Had the film been stylized more subjectively from a child’s perspective, we might not miss what’s left out quite so much. But the camera is more often neutral, shooting the action the way a straightforward adult drama would be, but then pulling us away from that when Jack leaves the scene. Jack doesn’t know or care about these things, but we do. We’re watching his story, but we identify more with Ma. It doesn’t sink the movie, but it’s bound to leave many viewers slightly frustrated.
Across the board, the performances are phenomenal. The film has a serious chance at a Best Picture nomination, and it’s practically a shoo-in for a Best Actress nod for Larson. Joan Allen is typically stellar as Nancy, a role that reminded me of Laura Dern’s turn in Wild last year — which did eke out a Best Supporting Actress nod, but was a bit too light on screen time to be a fighting contender. The same could be true here. As Jack, Jacob Tremblay is tasked with carrying the film on his small shoulders, and he’s simply tremendous.
Room is dark enough to feel important but not so dark that it’ll turn off mainstream audiences. That’s basically the Academy’s sweet spot, though the way this film tackles its subject still somehow feels both too heavy and too light to compete out of the performance races. Some of us like our dramas to be a shade darker and more daring; others prefer them without any rape or attempted suicide at all. You can probably guess which camp I’m in.