“Room” is a story about finding light in darkness and redemption in the depths of depravity. Although it’s not for everybody—the hell depicted in this story will be hard for many to watch—it is hard not to root for a movie with such an optimistic and moral narrative arc, especially one done this well.
Although this movie has a strong plot filled with suspense both real and psychological, it’s narrowly focused on the relationship between mother and son. Five-year-old Jack’s (the shockingly nuanced Jacob Tremblay) world is his Room, the objects he greets by name (“Hello Wardrobe”; “Hello Chair”), and his Ma (an unadorned and raw Brie Larson).
Based on the bestselling novel by Emma Donoghue, the film is narrated by Jack. When Donoghue adapted her novel into a screenplay, she did a good job retaining the child’s perspective as much as a visual medium can, through voiceover and by filming much of the story from Jack’s perspective. The story, while dark in tone, has a glossy naïveté that reflects a child’s innocence.
Jack does not realize that he is locked in a room the size of a garden shed. That is because Room is the only world he has ever known. At night, his mother locks him in a Narnia-like wardrobe to sleep and the audience hears from his perspective a strange man (Sean Bridgers) visiting Ma, sees through the slats as the man takes off his pants, and then hears the sound of the bed squeaking. Jack doesn’t understand, but it dawns on the viewer that Jack’s mother is a prisoner and his father is a rapist.
Oddly, this movie is rated R for language alone, but the heavy themes and scenes of brief violence should be included in that. The physical abuse and psychological torture Ma has endured become clear as the movie unfolds, and their consequences are a huge part of the second half of the movie.
But for Jack’s sake, Ma found the good things about their world, and so Jack has grown up loving Room in part because he doesn’t know any different. In many ways, leaving Room is a coming-of-age metaphor, because Jack is faced not only with the huge and overwhelming World but with realities that Room and Ma protected him from facing.
Jack is a sheltered child in every sense of the world. His perspective is narrow and self-focused. Ma has shaped his world, but she shaped it to revolve around him. And while his mother sacrificed to protect him, her mission to keep him safe also gives her a sense of control in a situation that has rendered her mostly powerless. (Talk about a helicopter parent.) The movie tones down the more Oedipal themes in the book, such as the fact that Jack is still nursing while becoming aware of physical gender differences. These themes hint at problems that Ma and Jack would face if they stayed trapped in their “special world.”
But—spoiler alert!—in the aftermath of their tense and thrilling escape from Room, the roles change. A doctor tells Ma that Jack is lucky to have gotten out while he’s still “plastic” and able to readjust to a new world. Ma (who goes unnamed in the book, but in the movie is called Joy) is less plastic. The containment of Room was a form of safety for her, too. It protected her from the aftermath and gave her a singular focus. Her righteous reaction to a character who unfairly (but understandably) sees Jack as representative of her kidnapper and the horror she endured proves that Ma sees her function as Jack’s protector as essential. When she becomes less necessary to his daily survival, it is a threat to her self-identity.
It takes a different kind of courage to keep living in a world where the threats are unexpected and the pain can come from family or friends. We all have seasons in our lives of renegotiating relationships and figuring out how to live in a redefined world. Watching this season play out for Ma and Jack is compelling not only because of the context but because of the impressive acting and the understated, sometimes quietly humorous, portrayal of the situation.
Director Lenny Abrahamson likes to come at big themes from unusual directions. He directed “Frank,” where Michael Fassbender hides under a giant papier-mâché head, and “What Richard Did,” about the unexpectedly horrific things of which “normal” human beings are capable. “Room” is about the unexpected resilience of human beings. In “Room,” the resilient characters are those who focus on the good rather than the horrific and seek out redemption or light rather than darkness.
That is why it’s important that this movie not shy away from how dark things can get, or how depraved humanity can be. In fact, “Room” could have been a much darker movie; Abrahamson instead leaves it to the audience to tease out the true depths of how appalling it would be to live as a captive sex slave for seven years. Even young Jack is not immune to the darkness. His childhood is marked by trauma, both before and after leaving Room. His Ma falters. No character in this movie is perfect, and it takes place in a very imperfect world.
But to paraphrase Jack’s perspective, it doesn’t matter if it’s good enough. It is; now do what you can with it. For those who struggle with questions about life and faith in a deeply flawed world, it’s a perspective worth examining.
Image copyright A24. “Room” is rated R for language.
Alicia Cohn is a writer in Denver.