When we first enter Room, we greet it through the eyes of Jack (Jacob Tremblay) on the morning of his fifth birthday. He invites us to learn the names of all those who accompany him in Room, including Wardrobe, Seats #1 and 2, Sink, and plenty of other characters. And it is through the eyes of this imagination and its utter innocence that we meet Ma (Brie Larson), the woman responsible for maintaining Jack’s mental health, often at the expense of her own. Ma teaches him yoga, Ma bakes a birthday cake, Ma helps him bathe, helps him learn to read. Sometimes, Ma gets visits from Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) in the middle of the night that Jack can only interpret through sounds heard behind the wardrobe door, and sometimes there are days where Ma does not move.
Room is the story of a young woman’s battle with severe trauma seen from the eyes of the child she must fiercely protect. When she was 17, Ma (real name Joy) was abducted by the man we know as Old Nick and has been held captive in a soundproof shed in his backyard for the last seven years. Two years into her ordeal, she bore Jack as a result of the nightly sexual assaults she must endure. Since then, she has focused her energy entirely on normalizing this space for her son as a means of mutual survival. But now that Jack is old enough to understand, Ma is ready to enact their escape.
Based on the novel by Emma Donaghue, who wrote the screenplay herself, Room successfully navigates around the condescension that can often come with films told from a child’s point of view. This success can be directly attributed to the incredible balance between its stars: Jacob Tremblay as Jack is equal parts hero and frustrating antagonist to the film’s true subject, Ma, realized in a stunningly honest performance by Brie Larson. The first hour or so of the film belongs entirely to them, confined in this space together, with a woman who wants only to scream and break down and have someone to relate to, and the child who, through no fault of his own, simply cannot let her. To further capture Jack’s point of view, director Lenny Abrahamson makes judicious use of voiceover and POV shots, never distracting from the story at hand, only offering gentle reminders as to whose eyes we are experiencing this world through.
The tonal and power shifts that occur when we leave Room and enter the real world are truly what unifies the entire film. After spending intimate time with Ma and Jack and understanding their dynamic in solitude, when Jack emerges as the one more equipped to handle the unknown world, it brings the horror of what Ma has experienced into harsh, sobering light. For while the story is ultimately a heartwarming one of a mother saved by the resilience of her young child, having done so for him for so long, the family that welcomes her back (especially a very tender Joan Allen as Grandma) must come to grips with the unspeakable knowledge of how Jack came to exist in the first place.
Room is a film about coping. While it does verge into overly-sentimental territory in its last act, it ultimately offers an incredibly delicate portrayal of how people make sense of and move on from the unanswerable questions of what has happened to them, seen here in its most extreme and horrific manifestation. Through the incredible work of Tremblay and especially Larson, we are left with a beautiful, nuanced portrait of two people who understand how badly they need each other to survive, but who each learn that the only way to move forward, the only way to truly care for one another, is to find their own, individual strength, separate from that which they have depended upon for so long.