With Room, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson covers a topic that we are seeing more and more with a style and sensitivity that is all his own. Inspired by a glut of chilling real life cases, stories of imprisonment and sexual abuse on film and television have strangely been going through renaissance of late, with Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt a breakout hit early last year. And Room similarly takes the perspective of survivors, following Brie Larsen’s Joy, who was kidnapped at 17 by the monstrous ‘Old Nick’ and has mothered a child while locked inside his shed. As the child Jack hits 5, it becomes more pressing to her that he escape and live a life of his own. This immediately opposes it to the Markus Schleinzer harrowing Michael, which was an exploration of the interior life of a pedophile in the mold of Michael Haneke. Abrahamson’s film is a far more palatable concoction, with clear heroes to root for and villains to flinch at. But for a few reasons it doesn’t come across as talking down to its audience, and its moral certainty is a benefit rather than a fault.
Room is an old style weepie that aims for your heart and soul, appealing to your very humanity to consider not just the harrowing events themselves and the tireless love that gets Joy and Jack through it, but also the philosophical ramifications of how living through this trauma makes one perceive the world. It does this by telling its story through the eyes of Jack, extraordinarily performed by Jacob Tremblay, who has never left ‘Room’. The four walls, the dingy bathroom, toilet and cupboard that make up the shed that traps him, are his only conception of the world. And as a happy, sensitive child, he loves this world. He wakes up and says hello to the sink: it is his friend. Danny Cohan, whose close-but-wide photography seemed misused in Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl, finds the perfect function for his form here and plays with the confined space, making objects larger, having them take on the characteristics of people. The walls spread, reaching into the cosmos.
Emma Donoghue’s script sustains itself better than her novel did without making any real changes. The story just seems better suited to a 117 minute movie than a 400 page book. The plot developments, which include attempts to escape from Room, are edge-of-your-seat scenes when they come, presented by Abrahamson almost like heist or con man movie, and I felt a touch of Bresson’s A Man Condemned to Death Escapes to the taut pacing here, especially in the final escape sequence. As anyone who’s seen the trailers will know [SPOILER] that this is only halfway through the movie, and what follows is Joy’s attempt to assimilate herself and her son into the world, seven years after she left it.
This is where the film’s exploration of solipsism counteracts the potentially overwrought Lifetime movie-esque qualities; we only see moments such as Joy’s conflict with her father, or an exploitative TV interview, in fragments. Much like our own memories of childhood, these scenes are not entirely clear, obscured as they are by perspective. Larsen is simply terrific in grounding the film throughout, and the rock that she provides is essential in this half of the film working. She gives a performance of subtletly and emotional variety that matches her earlier work in Short Term 12 and surely solidifies her as one of Hollywood’s top actors.
Certain plotlines are left unresolved, which prevents a feel good tone from taking over in the second half of the film. Things may be getting better, slowly, but the trauma remains. The shifting gear of the film is as jarring as it should be for a film that transports you so wholly into the mind of its protagonists. And it is isn’t until the final scene, with a return of sorts to Room, that we see the true extent of Joy’s courage, and Jack’s growth. It is a heart-wrenching ending that plays to the same themes that Toy Story 3 and Boyhood did: that sometimes we need to let go of our past in order to grow up.