The subject matter of Room appears to make it either a more unhinged Lifetime movie or a rather uncomfortable feature to watch. However, thanks to some remarkable filmmakers behind and in front of the camera, Room becomes a sublime film: moving, heartbreaking, realistic, and ultimately uplifting. The fact that the filmmakers could take what could have been a rather distasteful subject and not give in to sensationalism is one of Room's many achievements, along with the sheer quality of the acting and its ability to be quite loving and compassionate towards the characters and audience.
Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has lived his whole 5 years in a world he calls "Room". The very small area has the bare essentials of life and one luxury: TV, where he sees a world that he thinks is pure fiction. All this is to protect Jack from a very harsh and ugly truth: his mother Joy whom he knows only as Ma (Brie Larson) is being held prisoner in "Room", a sex slave to Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Old Nick abducted Joy seven years ago, and I figure you can do the math.
Every time Old Nick comes to rape Joy, Jack has to go into Wardrobe. He is not aware of the horrors she is living, but knows something isn't quite right. When Old Nick tells Ma that his recent job loss may mean a cutback to their meager supplies, Joy decides it's time to try and make a second escape (her first pre-Jack one having failed). She is forced to try and explain reality to Jack, that "Room" isn't the whole of the universe, an idea Jack stubbornly refuses at first. Slowly, he accepts that it might be true, that TV isn't all fake and that the skylight above them is not the only source of light.
Jack eventually is coached to play dead, with Ma telling him to jump out the first stop Old Nick makes and find the first person to give them a message that Joy Newsome is still alive. The ruse works, with Joy having wrapped Jack in the carpet and convincing Old Nick not to look at him (Old Nick having been led to believe Jack had been struck down with a violent fever). Jack does as he's told and Joy is rescued (Old Nick having been unable to convince a passer-by that Jack was his 'daughter' due to Jack's long hair and fleeing).
Once Joy and Jack are rescued, you'd think their troubles are over. No, they have new troubles (albeit not as horrifying as being raped almost daily and being held prisoner). While Joy is at first overjoyed to be free and be reunited with her parents, her mother Nancy (Joan Allen) and father Robert (William H. Macy) have a surprise: they've divorced in the ensuing years (her disappearance a factor in that), and Nancy has a new husband, Leo (Tom McManus). Joy and Jack find the adjustment to 'regular' life extremely hard. Joy is depressed and resentful, mixed with anxious and emotionally wrecked. She attempts suicide, with Jack puzzled as to why she left so suddenly. Jack too is finding the real world a place of confusion, but also a place of sheer wonder (the first time he sees a real dog is a joy).
In an act of sheer courage, Jack tells Nancy he will give Ma his hair (from which, like Samson, he draws his strength) and Joy returns to him, thankful and humbled by his sacrifice, telling him he's saved her again. Eventually, Jack asks to return to "Room", and he makes his goodbye to it. He tells Ma to say bye to "Room" too, and as he walks out for the last time into the new and more open world, Joy mouths "Bye, Room", and walks away with him.
Again, Room's subject matter I think could frighten people off. On a personal note, when I told my mother about the story (very reluctantly, as I figured her reaction would be one of revulsion), she looked rather askance at the whole idea. No matter how hard I tried to tell her the story was ultimately uplifting and positive, the mere concept of a girl and her son being held hostage, of that same girl being raped repeatedly and a child being born under those circumstances all made her extremely unwilling to see it. She probably would skip it even in the second-run theaters.
If people are frightened off by the subject matter, they simply shouldn't. Nothing in Room is graphic or distasteful. Director Lenny Abrahamson always ensures that whenever something could be horrifying (such as when Old Nick comes to rape Joy) we only get the impression of things. It helps that Abrahamson and screenwriter Emma Donoghue (adapting her own novel) use Jack's perspective to couch the uglier parts (such as him only hearing things and not seeing the extent of Joy's assaults). Abrahamson also directs the scenes in Room extremely well, making this 10 x 10 foot area seem livable and real in the eyes of a five-year-old.
Abrahamson also manages to make situations tense when needed, whether when it looks like Joy's plans might go awry or when she is giving an interview to raise money and it goes wrong. Other scenes, like the delight Joy takes in her first shower or in breakfast made for her (even if it hospital food, which for the record I like), are also so well-filmed.
Abrahamson also has to get enormous credit for getting absolutely wonderful performances from his whole cast. Brie Larson showed in Trainwreck she can handle comedy. Room shows she can handle drama, and not just handle it, but excel at it. Larson has to be among our best young American actresses, adept at just about anything (I've yet to see her in a musical). Larson's Joy/Ma is a quiet young woman, one who does so well under extremely difficult circumstances. Joy's only motivation is to protect Jack from the horrors of their life, and we see that caring, nurturing love Joy has for her son. We also see the anger, the hurt, and ultimately the peace that comes to Joy at the end. It's a performance that both breaks your heart and fills you with hope at the same time.
Equal to Larson is Tremblay as Jack. His performance was also wonderful and excellent as this innocent, forced into a world he thought wasn't real. In his petulance, his at times annoying manner, Jack was no sweetheart. Like any five-year-old, he could be trying, difficult, irritating at times. However, his discovery of the world was traumatic for him in his own way, and at the same time, very exciting. When he unrolls himself in Old Nick's pickup truck and looks up at the sky for the first time, the mixture of amazement and disbelief is extraordinary. He sees for the first time with clear eyes what we take for granted: the trees, the streets, the houses that pass by, even the train tracks where Old Nick has to pause at before crossing. To him, this is the equivalent of going to a new planet, and the film gives us the world through his eyes, making all this more moving.
If you don't get emotional, maybe even a bit teary-eyed, at the scene where Nancy cuts Jack's hair so that he can pass his 'strength' to Ma, you have no soul.
In their smaller roles, Allen, Macy, and McManus all handle their roles as the parents well, each attempting to handle all this in their own way: compassion, difficulty, patience, anger, fear.
One of the great successes with Room is that the film handles all the situations well and realistically. Part of that comes from the fact that while there is a score by Stephen Rennicks, it is used sparingly. Many scenes appear almost documentary-like in their straightforwardness. It would have been disastrous to have drowned moments with music, and fortunately everyone involved took the story seriously, not attempting to portray Joy's return as one big party but as something to navigate through, sometimes making mistakes (Joy forcing Jack to play with the Legos, her attempted suicide) but ultimately working towards making the best of the situations.
Even the fact we had some voice-over (one of the banes of my film-going experience) didn't impede my love for Room, since here it actually works. If there is maybe ANY criticism I can make on the film, it's that I didn't quite believe the escape as it appeared, that the situation where the passerby Jack found could have happened the way it was shown. It almost looked like there was a bit of delay in reaction to what exactly was going on, but that really is a minor issue.
By the end of Room, I came close to joining some in the audience in crying for joy and for Joy. I can say that I was extremely moved by the film: in Jack's innocence and Joy's determination to survive, in the fact that both their lives, scarred in their own way by their ordeal, do look like they will have a happy-type ending. Room is very moving, beautiful, emotional film. It was handled exceptionally well, with some simply pitch-perfect performances. Again, don't let the subject matter frighten you off. Room is one of the best films of 2015, a film made for adults in terms of intelligence and compassion: two things we all need.