I was not prepared for this.
There have been a few stories over the years of people being kidnapped and held in captivity for years by their captors, only to escape and it becomes a big news story, most notably in recent years with the 2008 Josef Fritzl case in Germany and the Ariel Castro case in Cleveland, OH in 2013. These accounts are harrowing, troubling, and unsettling. And given how many missing persons there are in this country, as evidenced on shows like America’s Most Wanted, it’s possible they’re just the tip of the iceberg. These stories, particularly the Fritzl case, sparked author Emma Donoghue to write Room, the 2010 novel that would be adapted into a film. I was prepared for a grim or harrowing story. I was not prepared for the amazing story of resilience, inspiration, wonder, and love that makes Room as good as it is.
We are introduced to Joy (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) Newsome on the morning of Jack’s 5th birthday. All Jack has known his entire life is in “room,” his isolated world in the universe consisting of a bed, closet, sink, tub, table, chairs, stove, a TV, a skylight, some toys, and little else other than his mom. Jack’s whole world is a really sound-proofed, electronically locked shed in the back yard of Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), the man who kidnapped Joy seven years ago. Old Nick comes by at night every few days with food and some requested supplies, but nothing that would ever raise suspicions. He has his way with Joy while Jack sleeps in the closet. When Old Nick casually mentions that he’s been out of work for months and short on cash, Joy decides to enlist Jack in attempting to escape, fearing that Old Nick’s lack of money could jeopardize their relative safety. The first half of the film deals with their life in captivity, while the second half focuses on their life after their escape plan.
While the film has its basis in a serious and troubling subject matter, the foundation of the film is not built on the tragedy of their situation, but rather the bond of the mother-son relationship. I’ve been a fan of Brie Larson for a few years now, as I was blown away by her performance in Short Term 12. She is just as good, if not better, here. Having lived in captivity in a shed for 7 years and being subjected consistently to rape by her captor is traumatic, made no less traumatic than the fact that she seems resigned to it at this point. On top of being a kidnapped woman, she is now a mother, and must deal with all of the responsibilities of that as well. That means protecting him as best she can from Old Nick, but also putting up with tantrums and everything that entails having a five year old boy.
Casting the right child actor for the role is essential to the success of this film, as so much of the narrative is dependent upon Jack. The story is told through his eyes and through his word in voiceovers. Jacob Tremblay is great. Jack’s understanding of the world, like anyone else, is shaped by what he sees. He believes the world consists of the room he lives in and maybe there are other worlds out there, based on some of what he has seen on TV through some movies, but in his mind, trees, squirrels, and dogs aren’t real, they’re just as pretend as monsters, which are too big to actually exist. Spiders and mosquitos, though, are real because he has seen them in “room.” Having seen this and Frank, Lenny Abrahamson’s last directorial feature, one of his strengths is in making us see the world through the unique eyes of a character, whether that character is a little boy who lives in one room or a grown man who chooses to keep his face hidden from the world around him inside a giant papier-mâché head.
Interestingly, the film spends almost as much time on their time after captivity as it does inside “room.” Abrahamson and his cinematographer use the camera to effectively convey Jack’s first exposure to unfiltered sunlight as well as being able to see more than 10 feet away, often times blurring the picture or washing it out in light. They do a great job of putting us into the shoes of this little boy who’s world has almost literally had its walls blown away to reveal an exponentially bigger world. There are also close up shots of wide-eyed wonder on Jack’s face as he sees tree and leaves for the first time, something that almost derails him from his brave mission of escape.
Though they are no longer in “room” for the last half of the film, it is not smooth sailing, as they both struggle in different ways to adjust to life in the real world. The film deals with the fallout of Joy’s kidnapping on her family, as seen through the fractured marriage of her parents Nancy and Robert, played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy respectively, and the new man in Nancy’s life, Leo (Tom McCamus). Little by little, Jack is coaxed into the world by his family members, with very minimal initial interaction because Jack is so shy and culminating in a small, quiet moment between Jack and Nancy that could melt the heart of the most steadfast Grinch.
In fact, heart is something that Room has in spades. It impacted me with an emotional wallop I was not expecting given the subject matter. While it’s a story about being brave and having the boldness to step out into a bigger world, the film is also about the bonds that tie people together, even under the most unusual and extreme circumstances. I’d love to see Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay get Best Actress/Actor nominations for their performances. It is a film that challenges viewers to look at the world around them with a fresh perspective, and shows the world from a fresh perspective.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars