To clarify: This is absolutely NOT to be mistaken for The Room (2004). That’s a Tommy Wiseau movie widely (and wrongly) considered to be the worst movie of all time.
No, this is about Room (2015). It’s a movie directed by Lenny Abrahamson, previously of Frank, and written by Emma Donoghue, here adapting her own novel. It’s also easily one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.
Our story begins with Joy Newsome, played by Brie Larson. She was kidnapped as a teenager and stuck somewhere in a soundproofed and heavily locked garden shed. After repeated sexual assault by her captor, Joy eventually gave birth to a son (Jack, played by Jacob Tremblay). We open on Jack’s fifth birthday, after Joy has already spent seven years locked away.
Their captor (played by Sean Bridgers) is never named onscreen, but instead only referred to as “Old Nick”. It should go without saying that he’s a psychopathic shitstain who’d hurt and torture his sick mockery of a family if they’d even dare to suggest that he’s anything less than a fine upstanding person. Yet Joy has to play along and keep him happy not only for her safety, but for Jack’s as well.
Speaking of which, Jack has never known a world outside that little garden shed. He’s never known any kids his own age, he’s never known any woman other than his mom, and he’s never known any man aside from that ogre who’s keeping them trapped (forgive me if I don’t call the guy Jack’s father). Everything else comes from a broken-down TV set, but everything on the TV has to be fake because the only stuff that’s real is what’s in Room. It’s a somewhat complicated belief structure comprised of fairy tales and half-truths that Joy made up to keep Jack happy and explain the whole horrific situation in kid-friendly terms.
The plot is quite unusual in that it doesn’t really follow the traditional three-act structure. It follows something more like a two-act structure, as the film is quite cleanly divided into halves. We see what happens before and after Jack and Joy break out of Room, and without giving too much away, the breakout happens pretty much exactly at the halfway point.
On one level, the movie is about Jack learning about the outside world and other people, having spent the first five years of his life conditioned to think only in terms of four walls and two people. He’s become so dependent on routine, and so locked into the way things have to be that he has trouble learning about the endless possibilities of the outside world.
But on another level, it’s a story about the loss of childhood and innocence, writ large. After all, every one of us had to go through that time when we learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real. We all had to eventually learn what death is. We had to learn how to deal with other people. We had to learn that our parents really don’t know everything and they can’t do everything. We had to wrap our heads around the notion that the world is so much bigger and more dangerous and more incredible than any nursery.
Of course, everyone goes through those transitions at different times, and there are many unfortunate kids out there who had to make that change at a very young age. Yet it happens to every one of us. And Jack’s development in this movie is pretty much the exact same thing, taken to the most outrageous degree possible.
And what of Joy? Well, she spends the first half as a young woman who’s long past the point of patience. She very dearly loves her son and she’d do anything for him, but she’s stuck in a godawful situation that she doesn’t know how to deal with and every ounce of anxiety is right there on her face.
So basically, it’s a rerun of Brie Larson’s turn in Short Term 12. And that’s A-OK by me, because not nearly enough people know how incredibly good that movie is.
But then Joy gets out of the garden shed, and things start spiraling out of control. It bears remembering that she had been kidnapped, locked in a garden shed, beaten, sexually assaulted, and degraded in every possible way for seven straight years. If you’ll pardon the gross understatement (hell, even to say that it’s a gross understatement would be a gross understatement), that would naturally make for some seriously heavy-duty PTSD. This was a significant portion of her life that was built around certain routines, reflexes, and traumas. And even if she didn’t grow up with all of that the way Jack did, it’s not like any of that is going away overnight.
What may be even worse is that it’s not like the world stopped turning while Joy was away. Though her friends and family may have been devastated by Joy’s absence, the fact remains that they’ve all long since moved on and rebuilt their lives. So now Joy feels displaced and guilty for upsetting the status quo, no matter how many people are ecstatic to see her return.
It’s also somewhat ironic that Joy and Jack escaped a garden shed — prevented from leaving by an electronic lock and a steel door — only to end up in a house, prevented from leaving by reporters and paparazzi.
If I’m making all of this sound dour and depressing, let me assure you that it isn’t. Things are shitty, to be sure, and the characters are grappling with a lot of heavy stuff. Yet Joy and Jack are able to derive incredible strength from each other, and they get a ton of loving support from other characters in the back half. There are a lot of shouting matches, sure, but of course there would be. That only makes for a movie that feels far more emotionally honest, and it makes things a lot more satisfying when the characters are able to take that next step forward.
Another crucial factor is that virtually all of the movie is seen from Jack’s perspective. That makes a huge difference, since the adults make a very clear point of keeping Jack away from the nastier things and the harder decisions that are going on. Not only does this leave a lot of room for the audience’s imagination and interpretation, but it keeps the focus on Jack’s development and lends the presentation just enough innocence to take the edge off. Beautifully done.
That said, it’s not like the development arcs are entirely smooth, especially since the filmmakers tried to cram so much into so little screen time. A prominent example comes when one kid (I don’t even think he has a single line) inexplicably drops out of nowhere and invites Jack outside to go kick a ball around. And Jack goes out to play like it’s nothing. I’ll grant that Jack has developed so much by that point that it almost works, but it’s a jarring spike in his development nonetheless.
The entire cast is phenomenal from first to last. I’ve been saying since Short Term 12 that Brie Larson doesn’t get nearly enough recognition for how incredibly talented she is, and hopefully this will be the proof that everyone pays attention to. Additionally, Jacob Tremblay is simply a revelation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wonderfully talented young actor since… well, Short Term 12, come to think of it. The entire movie rests on the shoulders of these two actors and their chemistry together, and I’m thrilled to say that they are never anything less than captivating to watch.
As for the supporting cast, Sean Bridgers does a fantastic job of playing a dangerous monster who merely looks like an ordinary human. Joan Allen and Tom McCamus are both perfectly charming as the primary caregivers to Joy and Jack. William H. Macy only gets a glorified cameo, but damned if he doesn’t play that part for all it’s worth.
The score is pretty melodramatic throughout, but the visuals are inspired. The camerawork does a phenomenal job of putting us in the headspaces of the main characters, especially where Jack and his sensory overload are concerned. Yes, there may be a few too many closeups, but it makes sense in context. Especially when we’re in such a claustrophobic setting as that garden shed.
Room (2015) is a powerful piece of work. It’s superbly acted and emotionally raw. The characters are put through horrible ordeals, but it’s all done in such a way that they — and we — come out feeling empowered and uplifted. This is unquestionably a Best Picture candidate, and I can only hope that it gives Brie Larson some long-overdue recognition as a powerhouse. It’s a film that absolutely demands to be experienced. STRONGLY recommended.