The Plot: A young woman, Joy (Brie Larson), and her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) have spent his entire life (and a little longer in her case) in captivity, confined to a single small room. Despite these conditions, Joy tries to raise her son as a normal human. They play games, she tells him stories, and teaches him about the world. Here’s the universe: there’s Room, and then there’s Outer Space, and then there’s Heaven. Trees and dogs and things are just make believe. At least, this is the story she tells him until a potential opportunity for escape arises. Will they make it out into the world? And if they do, how will Jack cope engaging with a universe he never believed to be real.
Whenever I talked to anybody about this movie, they seemed invariably cautious, worried that Room would be grim, disturbing, and heartbreaking. I never quite understood that. The day I went to see it at the cinemas, though, I realized that my assumption of the movie—that it was a heartwarming mother-son narrative—was entirely based on the poster, and that I had never even bothered to read a plot description or watch the trailer. That’s not something I would normally do, but in this case all I saw was Brie Larson headlining a critically-acclaimed indie movie and I was on board. I didn’t even care what it was about. The main reason behind this undying, blind love for Brie Larson is the 2013 indie drama Short Term 12, easily one of the best films of that year, and Larson’s best performance to date. Saying that is not to imply that her performance in Room is sub-par. She’s a front-runner for Best Actress this year, and in my opinion she firmly deserves to win.
But enough of actual performance-based criticism. You want to know if I was totally wrong to assume something about a movie based on its poster. Well. Do not take this as an indication of the practice’s overall potential for success; do not take this as a comment on the general effectiveness of film advertising; above all else, please do not take this as a gross character flaw on my part: Room was not a devastating Scandinavian abduction drama. It wasn’t Prisoners. I actually did find it a somewhat uplifting cinematic experience. The tone throughout is not one of despair, but one of hope. The film does not linger on the terrible circumstances too much; it doesn’t beat down the audience or the characters. Even more incredible: it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. How? The story mostly reaches us through Jack’s perspective, and to him the room isn’t small. It’s the entire world. We’d probably think earth was small if we could easily travel between planets Star Wars style, but we can’t, so we don’t. Earth is a totally reasonable size for a whole world. Well, to Jack, so is the room.
Obviously, though, the room seems small to Joy. She’s lived in it for seven years, and she knows full well what the outside world is like, so she’s trying to get out. This is not necessarily her top priority, though. More than her own freedom, she wants her son to live a happy and healthy life. He’d doubtless be happier and healthier outside of the room, but Joy remains patient. Basically, she’s just a really good mom despite spending five years in a single room with her child. How could anybody do that? Larson takes this impossibility and brings it to life in a meaningful, believable way. She focuses all her energy into creating a great mother rather than a psychologically disturbed captive, and the rest of the production process supports this development. That’s what makes Room an oddly uplifting experience. It has its harrowing moments, and if you stop to think about anything for too long it can get really disturbing, but no one who worked on the movie wants you to feel disturbed. There are enough moments of genuine heartwarming goodness to avoid that soul-crushing premise, but not so many that the narrative drifts into sentimentality.
On my walk back from the cinema I was trying to think of things to complain about regarding Room. It’s not a perfect movie. There are really too many close-ups… although I guess that decision was heavily dictated by the set… and there are a few plot holes… but they don’t really matter. Room is a good movie. So good, in fact, that it hardly seems worthwhile to mention its few flaws. The end product emerges from a team effort. Director Lenny Abrahamson, screenwriter Emma Donoghue (based on the novel by), and the kid, Jacob Tremblay, all commit admirably, aided by a strong score and excellent cinematography, but Brie Larson steals the show. That’s nobody else’s fault. She’s just great, that’s all.