Why ‘Room’ is the ultimate coming-of-age movie
Spoilers for “Room” to follow. You should go see “Room.” It’s a great film and this won’t make any sense unless you’ve seen it.
“Room,” a film currently suspended in a sea of Oscar-buzz, is difficult to confine within a single genre. It’s billed as a thriller, but, being about the imprisonment and rape of a teenage girl by a terrifying criminal, the label “horror” may be a better fit; there’s no lack of horrific imagery here. However, the most apt genre to classify “Room” with is one that has, so far, rarely been assigned to it by critics: “Room” is a coming-of-age film.
“Room” doesn’t have cute teenagers, nostalgic music, first sexual experiences or gross-out humor (the usual codifiers of the genre). Rather, “Room” ’s two-act structure depicts the central theme of the genre: a passage, from childhood into adulthood.
In the first act, we are introduced to Jack and his mother Joy, the captives. Jack was born in Room, and has never seen anything outside of it. He is not aware of the limitations of his existence; Room is his existence. Given the circumstances, he’s a happy and healthy kid. He’s still a little kid running about, taking pleasure in playing with toys and interacting with his mother.
Then, he turns five. His mother considers him old enough to learn the truth: They’re captives, and they can’t leave.
This is the moment, an exclusively human explosion of consciousness we all experience at different times in our lives: we discover exactly who, what and where we are. These are concepts that are vaguely known in childhood but don’t really come into complete understanding until young adulthood.
It’s a vastly important moment of self-reflection, but not usually a pleasant one. The ego is formed. Here enters the haziness and murkiness of reality, the realization that we aren’t a floating consciousness that has always been and always will be, but a thoroughly mortal biological construct. There may be more out there, but we have no method of understanding it. We are alone together. We are not complacent; we are limited, and our time is running out.
We understand now that “Room” is not unfamiliar to us. “Room” is our new reality when we hit this point in our lives. Now that we understand what we are, we have a pervasive discomfort that bleeds into everything that was once simple and easy. While the physical manifestation of “Room” in the film is given context and emotional weight as a terrifying situation of imprisonment and abuse, it also represents this more mundane sense of understanding.
Joy and Jack do not escape “Room” when they leave its walls. They’re still prisoners of their reality. Beyond the initial catharsis of their observed freedom, they cannot find a way to escape the humanity that they were born into.
Their freedom only comes when they re-examine their reality. The final scene, in which the pair returns to their place of captivity, finally puts the two at peace. They look at each part of Room unblinkingly. Through acceptance, they are able to enjoy their lives again. No longer are they stuck within the turmoil, the hatred of their own understanding. This is adulthood.
No, “Room” does not aesthetically resemble the traditional coming-of-age films like “The Breakfast Club,” “American Pie” and “Almost Famous.” But it does explore similar themes, and represents a similar passage. “Room” is a primal film, a harrowing and emotional exploration of what it’s like to comprehend one’s humanity.