Room: A Small, Brilliant and Terrifying Film

ROOM (2015)
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
A24, 118 minutes, R [Sexual situations, violence]
* * *

Brie Larson won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Joy Newsome in this film. One can debate whether it was the best female performance of 2015, but Ms. Larson was certainly deserving of being honored. Most of you will probably need to see this film as I did: on DVD. Its theme is so harrowing that it pulled in a paltry $18 million at the North American box office. But see it you should.

Room is based on the eponymous novel of Emma Donoghue, who also penned the screenplay. It’s fiction, but it resonates with enough verisimilitude to explain why it didn’t generate an audience as big as its critical acclaim. It tells the story of a woman (Larson) who was abducted when she was 17 and imprisoned in a locked shed by a man she knows only as Old Nick (Sean Bridger). We meet her when she is 24 and is both Old Nick’s sex slave and the mother of five-year Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Jack knows nothing of the world; insofar as he knows, “Room” is the entire universe and “Ma” and Old Nick the only inhabitants. All of the stuff he sees on the snowy TV in Room is just “make-believe,” a story Joy tells him to help him cope and be happy. She also breast-feeds him, a way to reinforce intimacy as well as preventing another pregnancy. Room is Jack’s world and he is Joy’s. When sheer boredom and a perceived threat to Jack’s safety ensues, Joy enlists Jack’s aid in hatching an escape plan—no easy task as it involves undoing his socialization and deconstructing his worldview.

Think upon this. What would it mean to a five-year-old raised in a single room with one skylight to learn that there was an entire universe beyond the walls? Jack is, in essence, a feral child, so how would he adjust to having grandparents and neighbors? How would he make friends? What about Joy, who entered Room as a high school student? How would she cope with freedom? With the reality that her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) had split and mom was now romantically linked to a former family friend (Tom McCanus)? One of the biggest challenges–adeptly handled in the film–is that Joy is also instant fodder for the mass media’s sensationalist lust. How can she psychologically cope with a gotcha question of why she didn’t ask her abductor to anonymously drop off her infant son at a hospital so he could grow up normally? That’s cruel and unfair, but do the inquisitors care?

This film begs the question of whether an amoral world is, in many ways, just as much a prison as Room. So yes, this is a tough film, but it’s also a superb one. It manages to be terrifying without being graphic and harrowing more through silences than histrionics. Kudos to Abrahamson for his appreciation of the principle of less is more. One can only imagine what a hash HBO would have made of this smart Canadian-Irish production. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised that the Academy honored a performance as nuanced as Ms. Larson’s. Rob Weir

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