Films that feature a child’s perspective are often powerful when they work, and painful when they don’t. Room is an example of this device working. We see and experience the world of the movie from inside the eyes and mind of Jack, the five-year-old boy played by Jacob Tremblay; it’s a world consisting of a small single room that we quickly learn he’s never left, spending all five years of his life in this tiny space with his Ma, played by Brie Larson. What we know from the introductory scenes is that they are never allowed to leave this little room, that they are brought necessary supplies by a man they call Old Nick, and that Jack and Ma have a close and loving relationship.
This is a simple, even naïve perspective from which to view their situation, as we quickly become aware, but that is precisely the point—as the story progresses, Jack’s world becomes larger, his perspective becomes broader, and thus the perspective of the film becomes broader for the audience as well.
Room is more about getting into the minds and emotions of these characters more than it’s about plot (in fact, I’d recommend going into it knowing as little of the plot as possible). The story does move, and when it moves it flies, but much of it is also about the lack of movement, the feeling of stasis that comes towards the latter half of the film. That is to say, the inevitable escape scheme is carried out with the necessary kineticism, and the subsequent act with the appropriate mundaneness.
One of the striking ways the world of the film is established, driving home the limited perspective possessed particularly by Jack, is the use of language. The title of the movie itself seems awkward at first (and hopefully does not confuse people into thinking they’re seeing The Room), but once it’s clear that “room” is not simply a noun to these characters but a proper noun, “Room,” used in the same way someone would use the word “Home” to refer to a specific place, or maybe more accurately, “Earth.” Abrahamson also employs some nifty trickery to play with the scale of the room, making it seem almost adequate in size when lived in, but later reveals how tiny it is after they escape.
The fact that they escape the room (please let there never be a Room-themed escape room) has been the focus of the promotional material accompanying the movie, so it might as well be addressed (I sort of wish their escape attempt(s) were more of a surprise, as they were for me—I watched it with minimal information going in).
Perhaps it’s because so much of the story is devoted to the aftermath of Joy (Ma’s real name) and Jack’s trauma, but to the actual film’s credit, there’s a strong sense that the whole movie could take place in Room if it wanted to, culminating in their eventual getaway. But then, that’s also perhaps the movie’s greatest strength: in a typical mainstream narrative, getting out of Room would constitute a kind of happy ending, but here, it follows the more interesting PTSD narrative of life after Room. In terms of the pacing of these two sections, both are handled quite well.
In Abrahamson’s previous film, Frank, this deliberate pace and muted tone clashed, for me, with the alienating story. With a story as emotional as Room, however, allowing us to dwell in the highs and lows serves the narrative quite effectively.
Most attention will be paid, deservedly, to the performances in the film. Larson has become the type of actor whose great work it’s easy to take for granted, as if screen brilliance is just par for the course, but her importance to how well Room works would be hard to overstate. Her relationship with and devotion to her son are the most moving elements of a very emotional film, but it’s also worth mentioning the difficult emotional arcs of Joy’s parents, played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy.
There is also a strong reminiscence to Beasts of the Southern Wild here, largely due to the incredible performance by Tremblay. It’s clear it takes a special young actor to make a film like these work, one that hinges so strongly on whether we believe the performance and buy into the child character’s perspective. Like Quevenhané Wallis in Beasts, there’s a rawness to Tremblay here that manages to capture the strangeness of his situation as well as an endearing innocence that makes us root for him even more.
For Room, the result is a powerfully moving experience of the struggle for two characters to regain their humanity after having it taken from them.
With two lead remarkable lead performances, Room is a powerfully moving story told from a strongly distinct inside perspective.