Room, the latest film from director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank), is based on a 2010 novel by Canadian author Emma Donoghue. The movie, like the book, revolves around two characters, a five-year-old boy named Jack and his Ma (played, respectively, by Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in powerhouse performances). “Ma” is really a girl named Joy Newsome, abducted and imprisoned by a man known only as Old Nick. Ma has been held captive for seven years, meaning that the only world that Jack has ever known is the world within the walls of the woodshed that Nick keeps them in, a world that Jack calls, with affection, “Room”. To protect Jack, Ma has told him that Room is all that really exists. The images and people that he sees on on TV, she tells him, are fake.
The book told the story through Jack’s first-person narration, which gave the harrowing surroundings an innocence that the bleak visuals of film won’t allow. In the novel, though we understand fairly quickly what is happening, Jack’s voice remains innocent. In the film, we see Ma’s desperation all too well, and can never truly believe that Room is a fantasy world. Donohue, who wrote the script, uses some of the first-person narration from her novel, but is smart enough to allow the direction to guide us through Jack’s perspective. Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, Les Miserables) film Room from low, tight angles, taking us directly into Jack’s day-to-day experience.
Tremblay gives a naturalistic performance, or rather, maybe, Abrahamson and Larson pull a naturalistic performance out of him. Jack is alternately joyous, sullen, and goofy. Ma has done her best to give him that kind of childhood, but once they manage to escape, it’s clear that choices that she has made may have stunted Jack in ways she did not anticipate.
That second half of the movie is where Ma comes to the front and center of the story. She has spent so many years taking care of Jack that she’s had no time to face her own trauma. But that trauma never leaves her. It’s etched across her face at all times, whether she’s scheming a desperate escape from Room or watching Jack play with a neighbor boy in the backyard of her parents’ home. Larson (Short Term 12), has been brilliant in smaller roles for awhile now. Room is her breakout -- a haunting, career-defining performance.
The plot of Room could easily have been sensationalized. In the hands of lesser collaborators, the gripping early stretches of the film could have stripped focus from the second half, which finds Jack struggling to deal with a world too new, too loud, and too bright for him and Ma dealing with a world that’s moved on without her. Room was inspired by a horrific true story, the kind of story that we see all too often. But, usually, little attention is paid to the continuing struggle of the people who have been victimized. How do they move forward, once the cameras are gone, and life returns to its normal pace? Can they ever truly heal?
Room is about that victimization, but it’s also about that healing process. Though that section of the film is less intense than the beginning of the film, it’s infinitely more heartbreaking. And Room, heartbreaking in a million little ways, is the best film of 2015 so far.