Weakness into Strength: “Room” Movie Review

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star in "Room." (Ruth Hurl/Element Pictures)

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star in “Room.” (Ruth Hurl/Element Pictures)

In today’s world of Law & Order marathons and TV networks dedicated to crime stories, most are familiar with the concept of Stockholm Syndrome: the mental conditioning where a captive becomes attached to their captor because their survival depends on them. However, the recently released movie Room, produced by A24 films, explores a different aspect of captivity – the dependence of long-term captives on ritual and routine, and how a child raised to understand nothing else may cope after being released into a larger world.

Based on the novel of the same name, Room has taken the 2015 film festival circuit by storm. A24 has taken some creative risks in the past, with films like the zombie-drama Life After Beth and sci-fi techno-horror Ex Machina, but with Room we see a more “mature” side of the production studio’s ambitions. Still a relatively new player in the film business, Direct TV offers competitive pricing on a diverse array of television options. Both the cable powerhouse and the up-and-coming distributor are heading in an exciting new direction with Room. 

In the film Brie Larson stars as Ma, a woman kidnapped as a teenager and forced to give birth in captivity. Jacob Tremblay is a revelation as her five-year-old son Jack, the audience’s eyes into the 11×11 world of Room – the garden shed where both are kept by a man that Ma calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Loosely based on the Josef Fritzl kidnapping, the story follows Ma and Jack in their secluded lives and through a daring escape plan, are released back into the world. Joan Allen and William H. Macy play Jack’s grandparents, separated after the loss of their daughter.

Author Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel for the screen in an effort to maintain the tone, and while the novel is told from Jack’s point of view the film makes sparing but effective use of his voice-over. But the camera follows Tremblay, ensuring that we as the audience know that Jack is our entry point into this world. We see the delight that he takes as Ma guides him through his daily routines – exercise, watching television, and listening to stories. He is not alone; Ma has anthropomorphized the objects in Room so that they are residents of their small world. When it is time for his nightly routine of crawling into a wardrobe so that Old Nick can bring supplies, the truth about their situation is made all too apparent to the audience. While Jack does not recognize the noises from outside the wardrobe, the audience is able to paint a clear picture of the actions Old Nick is taking against Ma.

Director Lenny Abrahamson succeeds in emphasizing how cramped the world that Ma and Jack inhabit really is. The shed was built in the appropriate dimensions, and while a camera was occasionally inserted through the wall to get the appropriate shot, all scenes inside Room were actually inside Room, with no cheats taken. The audience comes to realize that Ma has told Jack that this cramped space is all that exists of the world, that the images on television are just make-believe. While Jack accepts this premise, Ma chafes against them, dropping into occasional depression.

And yet when they are released, both experience uncertainty outside in a world much bigger than Room. For Jack, he has known nothing else for his entire life and Ma cannot return to the life that she left behind. They have lost the ritual of their lives in Room and the film thoroughly explores what this means for each of them, and how considerably resilience differs in children and adults. For Jack, the loss of the small contained world of Room means that he no longer has his mother all to himself. He has been thrust into a situation and a place that he has no context for and does not understand and yet despite everything, we see him not just survive, but grow.

With Ma’s return to the real world considerably more challenging, and understandably so, we experience a wide range of emotion watching this story to its end. A chilling story so spectacularly played out on screen has gone so far as to establish noteworthy Oscar buzz for the famed duo, bringing their unlikely friendship into the spotlight once again. With its exceptional performances and fascinating story, Room is a beautiful meditation on the human experience originating in the darkest of situations.

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