Lenny Abrahamson’s awards-tipped drama, Room, threatens to be nothing short of a two hour emotional bludgeoning of the audience at the hands of a story all the more nightmarish for its basis in fact. Brie Larson plays Joy Newsome, incarcerated for seven years along with her five year old son, Jack, (Jacob Tremblay), for whom ‘Room’ is the only home he’s ever known. Following their escape, we witness the boy’s first experiences of an unfamiliar reality as he and his mother return to her childhood home.
The film certainly elicits the expected waves of emotional response from its audience. Its tools, however, are largely subtlety rather than hysteria. The film’s expressive power is evident in the cinematographic skill with which Jack’s world is revealed to us as a familiar, comfortable and strangely boundless place, which nonetheless we recognize to be the squalid interior of a cell. Abrahamson’s playfulness with light, his creative use of scale and perspective, unobtrusively pull the viewer into the child’s frame of mind. Indeed, the stability and clarity of Jack’s vision of the reality he knows as ‘Room’, is constructed so sympathetically as to render the external world strangely unreal and intangible.
Larson is rightly praised for her role. Straining emotion from her waxy face, she is atavistically maternal and running on empty in her effort to turn a lifeless space into a realm of creative possibility and reassuring continuity for her child. The task of finding charm in a charmless world doesn’t end at the cell door, as it turns out. The film’s second half, however, which follows from the pair’s impossibly climactic escape, serves as a sensitive drama of human relations, rather than an autopsy of the horrors of imprisonment and abuse. This is to the film’s credit. To have indulged the story’s abundant emotional content would have risked appearing overly-exploitative of the subject-matter, though it would no doubt have thrown a few more scraps of meat the way of the baying Academy of Motion Pictures, who, as we enter that second Christmas which is the Award’s Season, are practically quivering in anticipation of the kind of grandstanding, violin-soaring, redemption-winning moments that they can mash together on the VT as John Travolta loudly mispronounces the nominations.
If anything it seems the film systematically elides moments or themes too upsetting and therefore disruptive of the film’s most captivating aspect: a study of a child’s overdue rebirth into an imaginary world made real. So, we forgive Room its occasional sweetness or implausibility, which would be frustrating were it more openly concerned with the mechanics of plot.
Tremblay’s performance is arresting. The role calls for his irrepressible childlike fervor, the integrity of the naïve outlook that children are able to bring to bear on the most unpalatable of situations. This is a domestic drama, albeit one born from a twisted and unconventional origin. As Jack emerges from his cave of shadows, with its muted version of reality, he looses a certain innocence, exploring, in his fawn-legged way, a world, newer and cleaner but perhaps no more comprehensible than that which he knew. Ultimately, this film shies from condemning the insufficiency of the worlds we all fashion for ourselves. Rather it endorses more encouraging sentiments. The tone is redemptive; a celebration of the uncorrupted life, the blue sky, the open field and child in arms.