Editor’s Notes: Room is currently out in limited release.
There’s a moment in Room – a film overflowing with harrowing, heartbreaking moments – when Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a five-year-old boy who’s lived his short life inside a padded shed with his mother, Ma/Joy (Brie Larson), when his fears, for himself, for his mother, temporarily fade away and he breathes in the enormity of the newly discovered outer world that envelops him and an overarching bluer-than-blue sky that leaves him stunned, shaking in wonder and awe, that embodies director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) and screenwriter Emma Donoghue’s (adapting her own 2010 novel) lyrical, intimate, profoundly poignant collaboration. Whatever awards recognition Room receives will be well deserved, but awards recognition, not to mention the usual arsenal of superlatives available to critics and reviewers, can only approximate (badly, if we’re being honest) what Abrahamson, Donoghue, Larson, and Tremblay accomplished with Room.
To anyone familiar with Larson’s previous film work, especially Short Term 12, her grounded, expressive performance in Room won’t come as a surprise, but more of a validation of the depth and range of her acting ability.
Divided roughly into two halves, both almost exclusively from Jack’s singular point-of-view (as did the novel), Room opens on what Jack believes is his fifth birthday. Excited as any five-year-old would, be Jack is special, but not for the reasons he dimly believes or realizes. Jack’s entire world – the world he’s known since birth – encompasses the four, padded, windowless walls of the shed where “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers), his biological father, has held Jack’s mother (Larson) for seven years, providing them with supplies (food, clothing, other necessities) and an old, portable TV as their only “window” to the outside world. Jack’s mother counters his growing curiosity, not to mention his imaginative, metaphoric use of language, by spinning stories about the outside world (toxic, nonexistent), but recognizes it won’t last, leaving her in an ultimately untenable situation. Jack’s willfulness and occasional stubbornness also signals his growing self-identity. In turn, Jack’s relative maturity convinces Jack’s mother to attempt one more, possibly final escape attempt from Old Nick.
To escape, however, Jack’s mother has to convince him to venture into the outside world alone, a terrifying idea for any five-year-old, exponentially true for an isolated, sheltered child like Jack. Abrahamson keeps the camera claustrophobically close to Jack’s POV, either directly or just within reach, seeing what he initially sees before revealing a flat-on-his-back, speechless Jack looking out on the world for the first time. Abrahamson and Donoghue don’t sky away from using birthing or womb-like imagery for Jack’s emergence, but it never feels heavy-handed or over obvious, a credit to the potentially constricting, potentially controversial decision to remain fixed on Jack and his direct experiences, adding an almost Malickian sense of the embodied world and all of its sensory pleasures, seen, heard, smelled, and felt for the first time by Jack.
There’s never a wrong note, melodramatic punctuation, or artifice in Larson’s performance, a performance likely to be rewarded with recognition during the upcoming awards season.
Acclimatization, integration (for Jack), reintegration (for Joy/Ma) to the outside world proves to be both necessary and difficult, especially for Jack’s mother. He can only watch and listen as Joy’s attempts to reconnect with her parents (Joan Allen, William H. Macy) repeatedly falters amid Joy’s struggle to overcome her ordeal and readjust to normality (or whatever passes for normal), grief at the time and relationships lost, and the life not lived. To some, Jack’s limited POV and his poetic musings will feel like an unnecessary conceit or at least an unsustainable one, especially given Jack’s emotional arc (or lack thereof), but it’s also Room’s key strength: In remaining faithful to Donoghue’s novel, in closely replicating Jack’s POV, Abrahamson gained more than he lost and so does the audience. Jack’s POV allows us to experience an otherwise horrifying, exploitation-ready story from a singular, singularly moving perspective.
To anyone familiar with Larson’s previous film work, especially Short Term 12, her grounded, expressive performance in Room won’t come as a surprise, but more of a validation of the depth and range of her acting ability. There’s never a wrong note, melodramatic punctuation, or artifice in Larson’s performance, a performance likely to be rewarded with recognition during the upcoming awards season. As Jack, Jacob Tremblay gives an unexpectedly restrained, even subtle performance, remarkably free of the mannerisms and affectations all too typical of child actors. Universally strong performances from Allen, Macy (in and out all too briefly), and smaller, one and done performances (e.g., Amanda Brugel as a sympathetic police officer) are a testament to Abrahamson’s skill directing actors, a skill rarely given sufficient credit. Abrahamson, however, is just as strong visually as he is elsewhere, creating a series of interlocking images that reflect Jake’s curiosity- and metaphor-driven inner life.
Universally strong performances are a testament to Abrahamson’s skill directing actors, a skill rarely given sufficient credit. Abrahamson, however, is just as strong visually as he is elsewhere, creating a series of interlocking images that reflect Jake’s curiosity- and metaphor-driven inner life.