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Film Review: Room

Room (2015; Directed by Lenny Abrahamson)

The quietly remarkable Room is a sturdy and unsentimentalized child’s eye view of forcible confinement, psychological and sexual abuse, and recovery from sustained trauma. Put it that way and it sounds a harrowing ordeal, but Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s Best Picture-nominated emotional-realist drama about a boy and his mother who are held captive for years by a predatory man in a single-room garden shed is instead a clear-eyed statement of the healing power of connective love and the unaccountable strength of a child’s imagination and almost magical capacity for self-renewal.

Room is set for its first half or so entirely within Room, as recently-turned five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) calls the spartan, messy confines of the prison he shares with his mid-20s “Ma”, Joy Newsome (Brie Larson). Ma and Jack rely on their captor, known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), for food, electricity, and running water, and he extracts sex from Joy once a week or so as his forced reward. Joy has managed to shelter Jack from the harshest sharp edges of their experience and feed his precocious imaginative nature as much as she can, and Jack has constructed an entire juvenile mythological cosmology, complete with promises of hope and freedom that he can barely fathom, to account for the harder truths that she hasn’t yet opened up for him. But Joy can only hide Jack in the cupboard when Old Nick enters Room to have his way with her for so long, and when the curious boy ventures out and has a contentious encounter with Old Nick, she begins to reveal the reality of their condition and conceive of a way that Jack can free them from it.

Abrahamson, working from a script by Emma Donoghue based on her own novel of the same name, has a keen sense (passed on from and/or shared with Donoghue’s writing) of just how much of the harsher elements of Ma and Jack’s confinement should be shown and how much should be implied (Old Nick’s regular rapes are definitely kept as the latter), as well as when to open the story up by getting them out of Room. Jack’s escape takes a bit longer than planned, as he is awestruck and paralyzed by his first glimpse of open sky (Tremblay is a preternaturally tuned-in child actor, and he nails this moment memorably), and one might nitpick (if one were so inclined) that Old Nick lets him go far too easily and incautiously, considering the years of carefully devious self-preservational captive-keeping that has led up to that point.

But when Jack does effect his and Joy’s freedom from Room, Room becomes a moving and patient examination of recovery from a shattering trauma and regaining a hard-won measure of emotional equilibrium. Safe in the home of Joy’s mother Nancy (Joan Allen, who is never not tremendous) and her rumpled, empathetic partner Leo (Tom McCamus) – Joy’s father, played by a careworn, impatient William H. Macy, separated from her mother in the wake of their daughter’s abduction and can’t bear the sight of the boy that is a living reminder of it – Joy and Jack adjust to life in the wider world at their own pace, with their own struggles. And it’s Jack, whom a kindly doctor (Cas Anvar) is understandably concerned will be permanently scarred in psychological and social terms by the ordeal, who proves more fluid and resilient in his road to normality, bonding movingly with Nancy and Leo and Leo’s little dog Seamus and a new neighbourhood friend, and dragging a shaken and haunted Joy (Larson won the Best Actress Oscar for the role and it’s not undeserved) along with him.

Abrahamson’s previous film Frank began as a very specific farcical in-joke (about the independent music subculture, in particular) but then expanded with surprising emotional deftness into a larger, more potent statement about connection and belonging in the context of mental trauma. Room doesn’t have a satirical bone in its cinematic body, but is structured as a similarly unfolding bloom of emotional honesty and complexity, from a literally confined setting to a heartening, healing engagement with a wider experience of the world. It’s a wondrous little movie, and one quite worth making acquaintance with.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. February 24, 2019 at 11:18 am

    Great review! The book is great as well. It’s written from the perspective of Jack, which makes for a unique reading experience.

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