Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015)
Based on the best-selling book of the same title, by Emma Donoghue, Room tells the harrowing tale of one woman’s survival through abduction, imprisonment, rape, motherhood and post-traumatic stress. Sound grim? Well, it is, but it is also beautifully life-affirming. As played by the marvelous young actress Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Ma – the only name by which we know her, spoken by her 5-year-old son, Jack – is a model of strength and resilience, though prone to occasional (and very understandable) fits of despair. Her universe is limited to a single room, which she shares with Jack – played by the extremely talented (and relative newcomer) Jacob Tremblay – through whose point of view the book is told, a device mostly replicated in the film (for which Donoghue also wrote the script). The first images we see are from Jack’s perspective: abstract close-ups of furniture and other objects in the tiny space, which slowly morph into shots of Ma. This is the only world that Jack has ever known, and curious sort that he is, he makes the most of it with his imagination. Mother and son have a deeply intimate bond, soon to be tested. We sense, from the opening, that we are in for a riveting and overwhelming experience, a promise to which Room more than lives up.
The director, Lenny Abrahamson, last made a movie about a man trapped by his own psychoses, Frank. There, the self-imposed prison was a papier-mâché head, inside of which actor Michael Fassbender spent most of the movie. Here, the jail may offer more room to maneuver, but it’s far more solid. What are the effects of a seven-year kidnapping? How does one cope without hope? Jack, an originally unwanted product of violent sexual assault, is now far less albatross than life preserver. With him, Ma’s life has structure and meaning. Without him, she might possibly have long ago surrendered to defeat. In this way, Donoghue weaves a complex tale where good can come from bad, and bad from good. If it comes, the long hoped-for liberation may joyfully unlock one set of doors, only to lead Ma and Jack into a new form of captivity.
I haven’t read the book, so a great surprise for me was how the film doesn’t end where you’d expect it to. In fact, what starts out feeling like the third act turns out to be but an extension of the central conflict. It’s a tribute to both author and director that they never allow their story a pure happy end. That would be disrespectful to the experience. True, most wounds heal over time, but some leave deep scars. Both Ma and Jack will forever be marked by their years in “room” (that’s how they refer to their space), no matter what good comes later. The film does leave us with a strong sense of mother-child love, which overrides most of the horrors. And thanks to the exceptional performances from Larson and Tremblay – and other members of a fine ensemble cast that includes Joan Allen (Georgia O’Keeffe) and William H. Macy (The Sessions) – the bond between Ma and Jack is a beautiful salve that can, at least, heal the wounds we suffer while watching their plight.