Everything seems normal at first. A young mother and son awaken in dim light. They say “good morning,” eat their breakfast, brush their teeth together and plan to make a birthday cake in their small, impoverished room. Crayon drawings are taped to one of the dismal close quartered walls surrounding a bed, bathtub, toilet, tiny kitchen, wardrobe and TV. They’ve made it home in spite of itself. Yet you quickly realize this is something far worse than poverty. This is captivity.
Adapted from her own 2010 novel, Emma Donoghue’s “Room” tells the story of a child born from horror yet raised in love. Both emotionally devastating and hopeful, it is a film unlike any you have seen and one you will not forget. Room is not only all that young Jack (an astounding Jacob Tremblay) knows, it is also all he believes the world to be. Ma (Oscar Winner Brie Larson) has raised him intelligently but within a fantasy in which magic is real and a mysterious wizard named Old Nick (Sean Bridges) brings them supplies. On Jack’s fifth birthday, Ma determines his mind can now handle the truth and she plots a desperate course of action. Yet for both Jack and Ma, the prospect of freedom in the outside world is as scary and unknown as what they’ve already endured.
Director Lenny Abrahamson keeps the movie very active in spite of the tight confines of the story. Ma and Jack play, exercise, do chores and gaze in awe at the skylight, their only glimpse of the world outside of room. Yet his greatest feat, aided by Stephen Rennicks’ optimistic and almost cheerful score, is downplaying the horror of the situation. There is no overt violence, torment or terror. Those truths are presented through Jack’s limited perspective and masked by an overlying surface of settled routine. Just like Ma, we are outwardly numb but inwardly filled with constant turmoil. The dichotomony is shattering.
The artistry of both the filmmaking and the story would be for naught if it wasn’t matched in the performances. Larson and Tremblay are flawlessly riveting from start to finish. They are so inseparably comfortable and realistic with each other, even in the finest details, that you never for a moment doubt they are mother and child. Yet this Ma is actually a teenager whose life ended some time ago. She has swallowed all the pain and fear of her present life and the memories of her past but keeps them simmering deep inside. Larson brings it all startlingly to the surface with sudden bursts of protective ferocity and anger whenever Jack is encroached upon or a new unfamiliar world encroaches upon her.
You may not feel the full emotional toll of this picture until it’s over. But it hits hard. Especially when you recall how many times similar real-life stories have made the headlines. You’ll also look at your surrounding neighborhood with a grisly new awareness the next time you drive through it.