“Good morning, bed … Good morning, skylight.” As five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay, “Before I Wake”), goes about his morning routine, he introduces the inside of a backyard shed, his home and the only world he’s ever known.
“Room” is a story that eschews definitive articles — there is no need for “the” when Jack refers to the inanimate objects of his miniature world. To Jack, every bed, lamp and toilet in his universe is a living being and a friend.
Jack lives in Room with his mother, Ma (Brie Larson, “Trainwreck”). What Jack doesn’t know about, and what keeps alive Ma’s creation of the fairytale magic of Room, is that there is another side to the walls that keep them captive. To protect Jack, Ma tells the story of being abducted and held in a shed for seven years in a very different way. When Ma says that Jack zoomed from heaven through the skylight to save her, he believes her. It’s easy to believe — with his happy lightness and androgynous beauty of the very young, it often feels like Tremblay saves the audience from catapulting into the horror of what has happened.
While “Room,” Emma Donoghue’s critically acclaimed novel from which the eponymous film is adapted, is told from Jack’s point of view, our exposure to the hell that Ma has gone through is not limited. Their captor abducted her while she was walking in her neighborhood at 17 and held in Room for seven years. Their captor, known only as Old Nick, comes nightly to rape Ma while Jack hides in the closet, covering his ears and counting until it’s over. This is quickly established as a disturbing barter system, as Ma accepts Old Nick’s cruel criticism and sexual abuse to provide food and clothes for her son. But when the situation escalates and Old Nick’s maltreatment is no longer tolerable, Ma realizes she must find a way out.
The movie splits down the middle and the second half is located outside of their prison. But to tell any more about this would be a disservice, as the gripping emotions of fear and anxiety create the tension that makes the film great.
Director Lenny Abrahamson (“Frank”) creates a world both claustrophobic and vibrant in Room. The camera seems to shift when it’s looking at Jack and Ma, as Jack’s view of possibilities in Room is illustrated in the long and wandering tours he gives. But Larson’s portrayal of Ma displays the cramped reality of the space and of her life as a single parent. She is enthusiastic and joyful when playing with Jack but there is emptiness to her that only the life she was forced to leave can fill.
The film implores us to think about not just the monstrosities that could be occurring in our neighbor’s backyards, but to reflect on growing up and the loss of time. There is comfort in the small world and physical closeness that Jack and Ma are forced to accept. When Ma tells Jack the truth, that there is a world outside of Room, he is scared and reluctant to leave, shouting, “I want a different story!” To which Ma grimly responds, “This is the story you get.”
“Room” is the story we get. As it unfolds, we are trapped by its narrative and its compelling cast. We have no choice but to experience it with the same claustrophobia as its characters.