ROOM is a profound meditation on the human condition, a meditation as bittersweet as life itself, and as uplifting as a child’s innocence. Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, it confronts the barbaric simplicity of captivity, by contrasting it with the confusing complexity of freedom. What should be easy is not. Happiness is elusive. The unfamiliarity of the ordinary is too dazzling to process.
Brie Larson is dazzling herself in her viscerally wrenching, emotionally raw performance as the ironically named Joy, a woman who has lived as a prisoner in the eponymous room since she was seventeen. Confined to a garden shed that has been outfitted with electricity and soundproofing, she is raped once a week by Old Nick (Sean Bridges), the name she has given to her captor on whom she depends for everything, even her life. When the child she has borne her captor, Jack (Jacob Tremblay in an equally dazzling performance) turns five, his curiosity and Old Nick’s violence, make her understand that she must save Jack, if not herself, and she plots a daring escape. The result is not the happy ending that logic would dictate, and for which the heart pines, but rather it’s a struggle between the unresolved past and a present that fails to live up to expectations. The best intentions fall short, and it’s only the bonds between mother and child, that provide a lifeline for all concerned as Joy’s emotional baggage weighs her down, and Jack, seeing the world as something other than what is on a television screen, uses a child’s reasoning to find his place in in it.
We see everything through Jack’s eyes, with his disingenuous narration providing context. The film begins with his own creation myth, how he came from heaven to save his mother. In those first years, there is play, there is closeness, and the acceptance as normal that he never leaves room, there is never a definite object used. Even on his mother’s “gone days”, when she cannot get out of bed, there is the familiarity of the place, and the routine. Afterwards, as a result of his years of complete quarantine, he is forced to wear sunglass, sunscreen, and a surgical mask at first. And he needs the protective crook of his mother’s arm when presented with the strangeness of other adults, or a plate of pancakes, things familiar from television, but alien to his experience. As Jack acclimates himself, Joy drifts, the initial elations giving way to regret for years missed, a life not lived, and the trauma she had endured.
Jack’s irrepressible spirit is never in question, and it is on that the film solidly rests. When Old Nick turns off the power in the middle winter to punish Joy, Jack wakes her up with the delight of having become a dragon as they slept. The visibility of his breath in the freezing room a thing of wonder, not of fear. Panic is reserved for his mother’s growing emotional separation from him, as he goes through what should be the perfectly normal childhood stage of growing independence from her without the security of anything else on which to rely, at least at first.
Lenny Abrahamson has found a way to externalize the unfathomable bond between mother and child. The sustenance each draws from the other and the way it can, metaphorically, shut out the rest of the world as firmly as Joy’s imprisonment shut them off physically. He also finds the poignant victory in a child growing into his own selfhood that leaves such bonds not behind, but stretched and no longer exclusive. ROOM becomes less the dark story of a family tragedy, and more about the necessary pains of life, the strength we give each other because and in spite of it, that spare us all from the sterility and hollowness of a safe existence. It is pure transcendence.