When first we meet young Jack Newsome (played by remarkable newcomer Jacob Tremblay), we see him excitedly kicking off his fifth birthday wishing all the inanimate objects in his glorified prison (nicknamed “Room”) a good morning. For such a young boy who has never experienced the wonders of the outside world, who doesn’t even comprehend that outside this little prison is a much bigger world waiting for him to discover, it’s a very bittersweet, but meaningful action that feels like it blurs the line between the normal and the strange, with this little boy not knowing any better than what he’s been raised in. For reasons like that and more, it’s appropriate that Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is one of the most bittersweet theater experiences I’ve had in recent memory.
And a wonderful experience it is. With only his mother (Brie Larson), the aforementioned inanimate objects, and whatever imaginary pets he conjures up to call his friends, and their mysterious captor bringing “treats” back to them like an otherworldly alien in Jack’s eyes, the entire first half of the film in the titular Room effectively establishes a very lonely, yet oddly warm atmosphere as we witness the bond between mother and son unfold. Screenwriter Emma Donoghue (adapting her own source material) makes great use of psychology when analyzing her characters, with actions like Jack’s morning roll call possessing genuine warmth and sincerity to them, but deep down, we can feel the utter sadness in it. These cramped confines and the fact that his mother is semi-daily raped by her captor has become so routine that the Room becomes a prison both literally and figuratively, with the very thought of escape seeming beyond possibility, and the obvious toll on the mind showcased in subtly heartbreaking detail.
Then comes along the second half of the film, and I’ll be perfectly honest, I was expecting it to be the film’s downfall. The first half within the Room had been such a success that I feared the film would fail to live up to it, that they’d played their best cards too early. Instead, it subverted those fears with even more fascinating and saddening psychological study. Throughout the entire film, Jack has shown obvious disbelief of the possibility of a world outside of Room, and seeing him adjust to the challenges of that very world is a challenging one (even to the point of him “missing” the only home he’d known up to that point), but also an engrossing and necessary change to be made. It’s very interesting to see both him and his mother react to the changes in such different ways, with Jack becoming increasingly curious and merging gracefully into the world, while his mother still has residual mental damage over her experiences, sometimes leading her to lash out as her means of venting to get over her mental captivity, practically seeing family and friends as strangers wearing familiar faces. In general, both change and adjustment to new environments are a hard challenge to overcome, not just experiences like this that are likely beyond our comprehension, and Abrahamson and Donoghue look at all of it without the least bit of embellishment or falseness.
But what makes the movie work as well as it does are the superb talent on display, from Joan Allen’s tested and tender grandmother, to newcomer Tremblay’s precocious, quickly maturing young Jack. At the center of it all is Brie Larson, for while I wasn’t the most enthusiastic fan of her turn in Short Term 12, the amount of complex emotions she has to run through in this role, from unconditional love, heated candor, contemplation and confusion, unhinged resentment, to devastated regret makes for an absolute gut punch by the film’s conclusion. It’s a role that very few could have played, and even fewer (if any) could have done so as well as Larson. It’s not always a pleasant sit, but it’s a completely captivating experience. Out of all the films I saw from 2015, Room may have been the biggest, most pleasant surprise I’ve had; a beautiful gem whose rewards lie deep down in its core.
***** / *****