Film Review: Room

Beautifully rendered and acted drama about a young captive and her remarkable bond with the child she bore while held prisoner is a potent award-season contender.
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The scenario depicted in Room sounds forbiddingly claustrophobic and oppressive: a young woman and her five-year-old son kept imprisoned by a sociopath in a 10-foot by 10-foot garden shed with only a skylight revealing the outside world. And, yes, it is a miserably confined and austere existence. But “Ma,” the heroine of Room, is determined to create a rich life for Jack, the child she bore by her abductor, and her spirit shines through the first half of this riveting drama, abetted by the visually resourceful work of director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank). Anything but a wallow in despair, Room is a stirring and poignant dual character study that becomes even more fascinating once it escapes that backyard enclosure.

Skillfully adapted by Irish writer Emma Donoghue from her acclaimed best-selling novel, Room also owes much of its success to its very fortuitous casting. Brie Larson, a standout in films like Short Term 12 and The Spectacular Now, takes her career to an entirely new level with her feisty, empathetic and complex performance as a victim who refuses to act like one, and then-seven-year-old Jacob Tremblay is a miraculous find as the boy whose extremely circumscribed upbringing hasn’t diminished his sense of play and curiosity.

Abrahamson immediately immerses us in the world Ma has fashioned for her son, whom she unconditionally loves even though his father is her rapist and captor. She’s established a kind of normalcy for him, reading to him, playing games, exercising, even baking a cake for his fifth birthday. Deprived of friends, Jack always says a friendly hello to the furniture and objects in the place he’s come to know simply as “Room.” (The abductor allows them a TV, but Jack thinks everything he sees there, cartoons and flesh-and-blood actors, is imaginary.) He sleeps in a wardrobe at night as the man known as Old Nick unlocks the door and “visits” his mother, bringing the food and supplies they need to stay alive.

When Old Nick shuts down their heat in spite after a fight with Ma, the crisis inspires her to devise an escape plan for her son (the details of which are the one script element that strains credibility). But Jack does indeed escape, in a very suspenseful sequence that simultaneously captures his awe and wonder at seeing the outside world for the first time and such basic sights as trees, cars and animals.

Act two is equally compelling, as it explores the aftermath of Ma’s seven-year ordeal. Naturally, there’s the media circus to deal with, but also Jack’s adjustment to so many overwhelming new sensations and Ma’s post-traumatic stress disorder and her family’s unrealistic expectations about her ability to resume the life stolen from her as a teenager. In the interim, her mother Nancy (an excellent Joan Allen) and father Robert (William H. Macy) have divorced, and Dad is simply unable to look at her child without disgust. Fortunately, Nancy has a new man in her life, Leo (Tom McManus), who is exquisitely sensitive to the family’s delicate situation.

Donoghue’s script and Abrahamson’s direction are also exquisitely sensitive to a scenario that could have been sordid or purely sensational. Much of what ensues is seen from the vantage point of little Jack, rendering this story of unimaginable cruelty a fable-like aura that reflects the love and commitment Ma has invested in her unsought child. That moving and ultimately heartfelt human dimension is what earned Room the Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and will surely win the affection of a wider audience as it enters awards season.

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