Like the novel on which its screenplay is based, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room is a fictional high-wire act. Filtered through the viewpoint of an intelligent five-year-old boy, a story that might easily have been sensationalized or made saccharine—the imprisonment of a kidnapped, sexually enslaved young woman and the son she bore and is raising in captivity—becomes a tough but tender tribute to the creative power of maternal love.
The vivid metaphors that dot Jack’s (Jacob Tremblay) voiceovers (“I zoomed down out of Heaven into Room,” he says, recounting the origin story his mother created for him) make a fairy tale of mother and son’s captivity, while his habit of anthropomorphizing the objects in the storage shed where he’s spent his entire life imbues even small things with great power. The camera adopts his point of view, making the little space feel cozy and warm though glamorous close-ups and by lingering on the routines, games, and stories Jack’s mother, Joy (Brie Larson), invents to keep him happily occupied.
On the days when their captor, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), enters the shed, he’s glimpsed at first only in bits and pieces, his face blocked by the slats of the closet where Joy puts Jack during Old Nick’s visits. There’s never any doubt about what’s going on, but all the sex and most of the violence that Joy endures happen off screen, outside of Jack’s awareness and understanding. But that blissful ignorance can’t last forever. Realizing that her son is getting too old to remain content much longer with their cramped existence, Joy plots a desperate escape. The dangers they face while making that escape are over mercifully soon, but their adjustment to life in the wide world, which comprises the film’s second half, is every bit as difficult—and as dangerous.
For Jack, who has to wear sunglasses and a surgical mask when he goes outside until his light-starved pupils adjust to sunlight and his immune system gets used to germs, learning about everything from potato chips to stairs is the easy part. The real trick is getting used to the competing demands and possibilities of everyday life, which makes him feel “spread thin all over the place, like butter.” And for his mother, the depression and hopelessness that used to consume whole days while she was a captive threatens to engulf her entire life once she’s free.
Larson is moving as the nurturing Joy, and she and Tremblay, whose searching green eyes anchor his sensitive portrayal of the observant Jack, have a well-matched intensity and intimate mother-son chemistry (their murmured verbal shorthand is convincing). Always tuned into the boy’s wavelength, Joy takes Jack seriously and treats him with respect. Yet she’s ready to play when he needs to, and when she does the authority and gravity she usually exudes gives way to a lighthearted energy that betrays her own age.
Joan Allen plays countless variations in minor keys as Joy’s equally intuitive and supportive mother, maintaining a calm and cheerful façade while revealing her feelings with just the tightening of a lip or a stricken sideways glance. Like Joy, Nancy puts the needs and feelings of those she loves ahead of her own, and the filmmakers honor that choice without sentimentalizing it. In part, Room is about the terrible things we’re capable of. But at heart, it’s about our heroic capacity to take care of each other.