Claustrophobic, mother-and-son drama traps the world between four walls
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay
All we are told to start with in the mysterious drama Room is that Ma (Brie Larson) and her young son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) live in a 10-by-10-foot space called “Room.” At least since Jack was born, they have never left its confines. Shades of the childhood classic Goodnight Moon, their entire universe is comprised of simple objects like “Bed” and “Lamp” and “Rug” and “Sink” (no definite or indefinite articles—everything is the one and only in existence). Questions of why and how are, of course, legion. Room doesn’t spend all that long teasing out its reveal. In due time director Lenny Abrahamson (who gave us the gloriously weird musical comedy/drama Frank) and screenwriter Emma Donoghue (adapting her own inventive novel), explain exactly what Ma and Jack are doing in Room. But for purposes of this review, we’ll simply avoid the elephant in the living room and remain silent.
That’s really for the best, because what works so wonderfully about Room is the fascinating sense of discovery built into its origami-like construction. At first viewers are given this tiny, beautifully constructed situation. As the story unfolds, however, it grows larger and more complex. We start by watching Ma as she tries her level best to celebrate Jack’s fifth birthday. Things don’t turn out quite as well as she’d hoped. (Jack is inconsolably upset by the lack of candles.) She’s clearly a fiercely protective mother, doing everything she can for her son under particularly trying circumstances. And Jack is a fine little boy. But even he’s starting to chafe at the restrictions that Room offers.
After the failed birthday party, Ma decides it’s time to let Jack in on a little secret. He’s old enough and mature enough to handle it now: Room is not the entirety of the world. There’s a whole, endless universe on the other side of Room’s four walls. This existential nugget of truth doesn’t sit well with Jack. He’s been told by Ma his entire life that the world ends at those walls—that nothing exists beyond them, except the promise of Heaven. Not only does he refuse to believe her, but he can’t even wrap his head around the concept.
But the world inside Room is changing, and Ma is growing increasingly worried for her son. She needs Jack to escape, to find a life beyond its confines. At this point the reasons for their confinement become irrelevant, and the film evolves into a fascinating cosmological argument. It is, as some will notice, a variation on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Jack is the prisoner chained to a wall his entire life believing shadows cast on the opposite wall are reality, and Ma is the philosopher trying to free his mind and make him understand he’s only seeing the tiniest sliver of reality. It’s hard to imagine an existential argument about the construction of the universe between a young woman and her 5-year-old son being so gripping and tense. But Room will have you on the edge of your seat, knowing what the stakes are.
Abrahamson and Donoghue do an amazing job of making this all believable and relatable. They’re assisted immensely by their tight cast. Larson has been an up-and-comer through every film role (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street, Don Jon, Trainwreck). Here, ironically, she gets room to flex her acting talents and comes out beautifully as a leading lady. She shares a powerful chemistry with her primary costar, newcomer Tremblay, who comes across as amazingly intuitive at such a young age. This mother and son duo have an inseparable bond (quite literally), and that relationship forms the emotional backbone of the film.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say the action eventually spreads beyond the confines of Room. Here, again, the film unfolds into fascinating new territory, with little Jack trying desperately to cope with a world he is singularly unprepared to comprehend. Interestingly enough—in a final twist of narrative direction—it’s Jack who eventually exhibits the resiliency of youth, while his mother suffers a far deeper cultural shock.
Keeping with the theme, the film is shot in an extremely claustrophobic style. For the most part, the camera is shoved directly into the characters’ faces. The plane of focus is kept shallow, causing everything more than a few feet away to blur and fade. As the story opens up, the cinematography does as well, mirroring the character’s situations. It’s this sharp attention to detail that makes Room one of the most thoughtful films of the year.
From gripping start to grace-filled finish, Room is a powerful journey. It mutates from a dark mystery to a hopeful tale of growth, change and survival. The film serves, ultimately, as a metaphor for adolescence itself and that fulcrum point when childhood innocence can no longer provide insulation against the harsher truths of the world at large. The long and the short of it: Thoughtfully written and perfectly cast, Room is one of this year’s best indie films.