Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Starring Brie Larson, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Megan Park, Jacob Tremblay, Amanda Brugel, Sean Bridgers, Cas Anvar, Jack Fulton, Tom McCamus, Rory O’Shea. Written by Emma Donoghue, from her novel.
A 17-year-old girl is kidnapped and forced to live in a tiny garden shack with a skylight as her only glimpse to the outside world. She’s intermittently visited by her captor, who brings her living supplies and sexually assaults her.
She eventually gives birth to a child. After half a decade, the boy’s only interaction with the world is the 3-meter room he occupies and the images he sees on TV.
It’s a scenario that has become unfortunately familiar, with kidnappings and captivity of Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, and numerous others making headlines over the past decade-plus. Emma Donoghue, who adapted her own novel for Room, has said that she didn’t base the story on any specific incident, though she was inspired to write it following the Fritzl case.
In Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Frank), Brie Larson stars as the kidnap victim and mother. The story begins seven years into her captivity, when young son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has turned five.
The situation would be affecting enough if told in straightforward fashion, but Room becomes devastating because it’s almost entirely told from the point of the five-year-old Jack.
Tremblay narrates the film describing what his character knows, the things his mother has told him to make sense of his existence: there’s a bed, a carpet, the foreign images he sees on TV, a small closet he occupies whenever “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) comes to visit, and the “outer space” that exists beyond the skylight and the walls of the room.
As Jack gets older, his mother realizes that he may be able to help both of them outsmart their captor. This leads to an escape sequence carefully planned but executed by a child who has never experienced the outside world, and it’s one of the most suspenseful sequences of any film this year.
Room is at its most affecting when contrasting Jack’s reality with the “real world” that exists outside of his room. There’s family – Joan Allen and William H. Macy star as his grandparents, and Tom McCamus is touching as a friend – and doctors, dogs, media attention, all the toys and things he never could have dreamed really existed. And we experience everything for the first time alongside Jack.
Room bears some some similarities to the story of Kaspar Hauser, a German youth who was apparently raised in complete isolation before appearing in Nuremberg as a teenager unable to cope with the world around him. The Hauser story was told unforgettably in Werner Herzog’s Every Man for Himself and God Against All.
But Hauser was a teenager when he first came into the outside world. “It’s a good thing he’s still plastic,” a doctor tells Larson’s character here, referring to the fact that he’s impressionable enough to still be able to learn and adjust. “But I’m not plastic,” Jack whispers back.
There’s something in Room that we can all relate to, something that dates back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: that our own perception of reality is limited by personal experience, which belies the potential existence of something greater than we can imagine.
Larson is destined – deservedly so – for year-end awards as the mother, and the supporting cast (especially Allen and McCamus) also contributes fine work. But the real standout here is young Tremblay, in one of the most heartrending child performances ever to grace the screen.
Room is one of 2015’s best and most finely-crafted films, which came as a surprise to me after the director’s previous film, Frank. That movie – similarly inspired by true events – drained the potentially poignant story of its impact with a hipster-ironic approach. But Abrahamson’s matter-of-fact presentation here is a perfect match for the story’s perspective, bringing the film to its full gut-wrenching impact.
I’ve always found the most effective emotional scenes in cinema tend not to be ones of great sadness or suffering, which we see more than enough of, but ones of small human kindness, which are much more rare. There are a number of routine day-to-day moments in Room that turn inexplicably, quietly devastating. Bring some tissues.