A Review of Lenny Abrahamson’s Room: Beautiful, Devastating, and One-of-a-Kind


Film: Room
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Primary Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Tom McCamus, William H. Macy, Sean Bridgers
US Release Date: 16 October 2015

Joy (Larson), who is often referred to as “Ma,” and her young son Jack (Tremblay) live in a garden shed that they refer to only as “Room.” They never leave Room. Room has a tub, a toilet, a toaster oven, a bed, a table, a wardrobe, a TV, and a skylight. It does not have windows, the internet, or so many other things that many might deem essential. Clothing, food, and other supplies are delivered once a week by Old Nick (Bridgers). Old Nick kidnapped Joy when she was 17. He rapes Joy regularly while Jack sleeps in the wardrobe. Jack is his biological son, but Joy does not allow him to touch him.

Joy teaches Jack that Room is the entire world and that all that lies beyond the skylight is outer space above. Though she is a prisoner in an almost unspeakable hell, she does her very best to give Jack a loving childhood. She sings to him, she makes him toys, and she tells him to take his vitamins. There are days when she cannot make herself get out of bed, but most of the time she is a an understanding and incredibly nurturing mother. Considering his flawed and limited understanding of the world and his place in it, Jack is a surprisingly normal child as well. He has an active imagination, he loves stories, and he wishes that he could have a dog like the flat people on television.

Shortly after Jacob’s 5th birthday, Joy begins looking for ways for the two of them to finally escape. When they do, they both struggle to adjust to their new lives, and Jack experiences the world outside of Room for the first time.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that made me feel as much or in quite the same way as Room. While the film’s premise might sound like it belongs to some god-awful and woefully inelegant made-for-TV movie, this adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel is an intimate and emotionally intelligent film that most definitely belongs on the big screen. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Frank), the film is as horrifying as it is hopeful, and it is as beautiful as it is devastating. As dark as it often is, Room is just as inspiring as it is tragic, and its combination of tender storytelling and stirring performances makes for an undeniably affecting viewing experience.

Room is a film about many things, and it handles each of them carefully and with respect. Even with its particular premise and with the extreme situations that it depicts, Abrahamson’s film does not cheapen itself through sensationalism or oversimplification. The film carefully explores motherhood, the relationship between a mother and her son, the innocence and the imagination of childhood, and the ways in which we understand and discover the world. A well-crafted film about any one of these topics might be worth watching; a film that combines them all is almost too much to handle, but I mean this in the best of ways. Those who see Room may leave the film feeling as if they have had their hearts put through a blender. The film is exhausting; but even if it isn’t easy to watch, it is most definitely worth it to do so.  

There is terror and tragedy and darkness running beneath just about every moment in Room, but the film itself is hopeful and beautiful all the same. This unique, overwhelming, and nuanced film is devastating, but in a quiet sort of way. In fact, the way that Room balances such strong and potentially disparate feelings is one of its most impressive feats, and all of its emotional layers result in a film that is exquisite, powerful, and impossible to forget.

Much of Room’s emotional force emanates from its two leads. Larson and Tremblay are both fantastic in the film. As 7-year-prisoner Joy, Larson builds on her work in Short Term 12 and then some. Her performance is raw and vulnerable, and she conveys both Joy’s pain and her love for Jack with authenticity. Larson’s ability to tap into intense emotions and to express a great deal with a simple facial expression is remarkable, and Room wouldn’t be as moving as it is without her.

While Larson is the one most likely to receive an Oscar nomination for her work in the film, Tremblay is even more impressive. His face is the one the viewers will remember the longest and his voice is the one that will echo in their heads as they leave the theater. His wonder, innocence, and fragility also play a crucial role in shaping how viewers receive and understand the film. Jack is a rare character that manages to seem completely pure without feeling flat, and so much of Room transcends the screen because of him. Tremblay’s work is surprising and stirring. He is the film’s heart, and that heart feels far too large for a child so small.

One of the many interesting things about Room is how differently Jack and Joy experience their life in Room. For Joy, it is a prison and a hell in which she is trapped. For Jack, it is something else entirely. It is a place to be cherished and explored. Knowledge is responsible for much of the difference. And yet, as difficult as things are for Joy, Room remains hopeful enough to say that such knowledge is still worth having in the end.

While much of Room is about Jack’s discovery of the world, it is the bond between a mother and her son that holds the film together. All that Joy does, she does for Jack. But all that Joy does for Jack, she also does for herself. She protects him with all she has, but he also saves her life on multiple occasions. They are extremely close, and the relationship between them is not a one-way street.

With this in mind, it is possible to understand Room and the first half of the film as a womb of sorts. In Room, Jack and Joy have only each other, and Jack knows nothing of anything outside or of anyone other than his mother. Once Jack leaves Room, all that demands his attention and energy may seem to threaten the bond he has with his her. However, as hard as the period of adjustment and discovery that follows may be for Jack and for Joy alike, it is also good for them. It moves them toward a better life, and it helps them both find a way to move forward and to leave Room behind.

I’ve now seen two films by Abrahamson: this one, and last year’s Frank. After Frank, I was pleasantly intrigued; now, I cannot wait to see what he does next. Despite differences in genre and tone, both films demonstrate a deep emotional sensitivity. Though Room is much more intense, both films also combine the light with the dark and manage to be powerfully affecting in an almost gentle sort of way. More importantly, Room and Frank also stand out among the other films of their year by providing unique viewing experiences. At the same time, Abrahamson also understands the importance of balance and restraint. He may have room for improvement, but Abrahamson is a clearly director that film-lovers should be keeping an eye on.

I saw Room with my father. Both of us shed plenty of tears throughout the film, but he continued to do so for a few minutes after it had ended. Instead of getting to up head home when the credits rolled, he took some time to compose himself first. Afterwards, he told me that he actually felt sadder when the movie ended than he did while watching it. He did not feel so, because the end of the film is particularly sad either (it isn’t). Instead, he felt even more intensely when Room ended, because he was so invested in its characters (and especially in Jack) that saying goodbye to them was extremely difficult. I imagine that being left to consider how their story might continue without Jack’s company also contributed to his difficulty walking away from the film. While his experience of the film does not match mine exactly, it is similar, and it speaks to just how intimate and emotionally powerful the film is regardless.

If you have a chance to see Room, do so—just remember to bring some Kleenex when you do.
Purchase Room on Amazon.

Until Next Time
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