What could have been a miserable tale of imprisonment is instead a life-affirming exploration of imagination in Lenny Abrahamson’s extraordinary film.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Bire Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy
Country: Ireland, Canada, UK, USA
Runtime: 118 mins
Release date: 15 January 2016
Room, like the novel on which it is based, is inspired by by the story of Elisabeth Fritzl. Fritzl was imprisoned by her own father, who begat seven children on her, four of whom stayed with their mother. But that’s not what the film is really about. In telling this tale about a young mother trying to do what is best for her son in the most terrible and unique of circumstances, director Lenny Abrahamson has somehow made a film that is about everything.
Five year old Jack lives with his mother in Room. Room is the entire world. Jack’s mother has concocted a whole mythology in order to protect Jack from the awful truth: Room is a garden shed, and they are prisoners inside it. She was kidnapped seven years ago, when she was seventeen, and Jack is the product of nightly rape.
That’s dark stuff. But Room is told from Jack’s perspective, and he doesn’t comprehend the reality of his existence. Instead, the film’s early scenes, those set in Room, are inflected with elements of the fantastical. We learn, through Jack’s eyes, about the flat people who live in TV, and the aliens who police the nebulous space surrounding Room, and the magic powers of Old Nick (in reality his captor), who conjures up food and clothes every week.
We never actually see any of these things, though. Unlike Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, which interprets its source material as an ultimately empty CGI spectacle, Abrahamson keeps Room firmly grounded in the real world. Abrahamson’s camera makes a landscape out of a single, cramped location. Jack’s world is never anything but the physical objects that inhabit Room.
And his mother, of course. Brie Larson brings a kind of double uncertainty to the role. Like any young single mother, she is uncertain how to raise a spirited five year old boy. But we can tell, through Larson’s brilliant performance, that she is also uncertain if she is doing the right thing bringing up Jack at all. Later in the film, she is asked if she ever considered giving Jack up, so that he could have a chance at a normal childhood. She feigns outrage at the suggestion, but we can tell that this is a question she has asked herself time and time again.
This is after she and Jack have escaped Room and their gaoler. Watching trailers for the film, I thought that the biggest danger would be that it would fall apart after leaving Room. This isn’t the case. Jack’s escape attempt is as tense a sequence as I’ve seen in any film. And then, when Jack and his mother are finally free, the film continues to ask how these characters would deal with these situations. The answers are never less than insightful, and told with genuine, sometimes heartbreaking, emotion.
That Room holds itself together so well is largely because of a fantastic performance by Jacob Tremblay as Jack. Child actors can make or break a film like this, so Tremblay’s perfectly naturalistic performance is a great surprise and relief. He manages to act like a normal child even with an entire film crew in his face, but also gives us brief glimpses of the emotional turmoil that anyone brought up in these circumstances would experience.
If you asked five different people what Room is really about, I think you’d hear five different answers. Certainly, it is about a young mother bringing up her child as best she can in extraordinary circumstances. But it is also an emotional reading of Plato’s allegory of the cave. It is about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. It is about the power, and sometimes powerlessness, of imagination. It is about finding joy and wonder even in the mundane.
That is what makes Room such a powerful film. It isn’t just about a mother and her son in a room. It is about everything.