Lenny Abrahamson's shattering drama Room borrows its fictional plot from the tabloids and strips it of sensationalism. Seven years ago, a man (Sean Bridgers) snatched 17-year-old Joy (Brie Larson) and stashed her in his backyard shed. Two years later, she bore their son. The door stayed locked.
Now 5, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has never left their 10-by-10 cell. He's not even aware he's in one. To keep Jack calm, his mom convinces him that the world on TV is make-believe. All dogs are fake, the ocean is fake, the other people are just "made of colors." Their room — or, as he calls it, "Room," the same way we say "America" or "Earth" — is the only reality.
The twist is, to Jack it's not that bad. Like a goldfish in a bowl or the explorer who's certain the world is flat, his curiosity fits his box. He's surrounded by the splendors of Room: a flushing toilet, a melted plastic spoon, and, on a momentous day, a mouse. When Jack wakes up, he says hello to every item — "good morning, lamp," "good morning, plant," "good morning, sink" — with the exuberance of Pee-wee greeting his magic chair.
Tremblay, an elf with an uncombed burst of hair, is so compelling that we can see Room through his eyes. But then Abrahamson pans over to Larson for a reality check. She keeps smiling — in a space this small, she has no privacy to sob. And then Jack looks away, and her face goes slack. Larson, a gifted actress with the solidity of a frontiersman, silently telegraphs her loss. In flashes, she even lets slip her annoyance that Jack is so damned chipper. (She's also convinced him screaming for help is just a game.)
In frank terms, Room is a story about rape. Without it, Jack wouldn't exist. Yet Abrahamson loathes the salacious. He turns the camera away when Old Nick enters the shed for his nightly jollies, focusing instead on Jack, tucked out of sight in a wardrobe, obliviously playing with his toys. He's not interested in voyeurism, or voyeurism disguised as tragedy, which is how most women-in-peril flicks play out. Instead, Abrahamson, who last directed the excellent tragicomedy Frank, is fascinated by happiness and hope: how Jack can see joy in this dungeon, and how Joy can dream of freedom when her son can't comprehend that there's anywhere else to go.
Even if Jack were to make it outside, the shock of real dogs, real oceans, real people could break him. Jack expects to live his whole life in Room. But when Joy realizes that her son has begun to think of their captor as a god, she's forced to make a choice: keep sheltering her son, or tell him the grim truth so he can help them escape.
(Readers wary of story spoilers should skip the next two paragraphs.) Abrahamson so convincingly walls us inside Room that it's a jolt when the camera goes outside. After adjusting to the gray and filth, the blinding sun feels like a slap. Jack doesn't have the vocabulary for his new, strange world. The first time he hears a knock on a door, he bleats, "Ma, the door is ticking!" Cinematographer Danny Cohen explains his confusion visually: a close-up of his feet testing unfamiliar tile, eyes overwhelmed and numbed by a traffic jam on the highway.
We know the frenzy that comes next: the headlines, the paparazzi, the soft-focus prime-time interview. Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard have taught us the drill. Abrahamson doesn't indict the media for its interest or exploitation. After all, his audience in the theater is fascinated, too. But the real story, insists novelist Emma Donoghue, who also adapted the script, lies in the small details of how these two adjust. For Joy, the motherhood in which she found a reason to live is now, regardless of how much she loves Jack, a reminder of her pain.
Despite the fearmongering on the nightly news, it's a near certainty that none of the people reading this will ever be imprisoned. Yet in one year, Hollywood has filmed two productions about it: Room and Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. What's striking is that both of these stories are about victims who refuse to define themselves as such. (An interesting beat in a time when everyone else seems to clamor for martyrdom.) I suspect we're drawn to these stories because laptop life can feel like an isolation chamber — a glowing box that walls us off from one another. These tales remind us we can break outside. Like with Jack in his magical Room, paradise is a matter of perspective. How much we appreciate this world is up to us.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Written by Emma Donoghue. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue. Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, and Sean Bridgers.