‘Room’ Takes a Claustrophobic Look at Life in the Real World

“Can we go back to Room?”

The question permeates Lenny Abrahamson’s latest film, whispered by five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) in a recurrent plea to his mother. He begs her to return, as if “Room” is the happiest place on earth. The truth is that Room is a shed in some man’s backyard, and that Jack’s mother was held captive there since before he was born.

Nominated this year for Best Picture, Room takes a devastating look at the ways people are confined from within and without. While there’s no debating that Room is a physical space, it’s just as much a room in Jack’s own thinking. He describes the shed’s walls as going in “every direction, all the way to the end.” He longs to return to those safe confines, though a whole new world exists at his disposal.

His mother, Joy (Brie Larson), is having an equally hard time. Things should be good, she reasons. She should be happy. Instead, Joy’s fallen into a deeper despair, struggling under the weight of their past and her attempts to normalize. To make matters worse, she’s acquired some intense media attention that pressures her to keep appearances. Their escape may have seemed good back then, but now they’re both beginning to wonder.

In many aspects, Room can be difficult to watch. This is largely due to how well the film causes its audience to connect with Jack and the relationship he has with his mother. Every heart-wrenching moment draws us deeper into that relationship and causes us to invest in their journey back to the real world. The movie is hardly a walk in the park—but what it does, it does with grace and the utmost control. Room may be one of the most haunting movies of last year, but it’s also one of the most beautiful.

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Based on a novel by Emma Donoghue, the story shares a lot in common with the 1997 film Life Is Beautiful, where a Jewish father convinces his son that the concentration camp they find themselves in is really just a complicated game. Likewise, Joy shelters her son from the truth, creating an imaginative story to explain their captivity.

Having just reached his fifth birthday, Jack believes Room to be all there is. The ocean, animals, other people—all the things that appear on TV are nothing but mere fabrications. Their captor, Old Nick, brings them food and amenities, though his mom tells him it’s just magic. And though he can see the sky through the shed’s lone skylight, he believes everything beyond the walls to be outer space, where aliens zip around in their UFOs.

It isn’t long before Joy’s well-meaning façade begins to break. As she nears her wit’s end, she concocts a plan to free them from Room, unraveling little Jack’s world with the truth. Soon enough, Jack is thrust into outer space—or as he learns to call it, “the world.”

The film primarily focuses on their time post-captivity, drawing parallels between their claustrophobic dwelling and the horrors that await them beyond its walls. It’s a movie about the incredible weight of truth, the inevitable loss of innocence, and the painful reality of depression. But it’s also a movie about the astonishing scope of our world, the infinite beauty of reality, and the startling human capacity for strength. As mentioned earlier, it’s hardly an easy movie to get through. Yet it’s an extremely rewarding one, and worth every bit of Oscar buzz it’s received.

The wide acclaim hardly comes as a surprise, given Abrahamson’s previous film Frank. Starring Michael Fassbender, the oddball comedy follows a depressive indie musician whose band scores a coveted gig at South by Southwest. The film, though critically praised on its release, was not exactly Oscar bait.

For one, Frank’s star and titular character gets approximately five minutes of actual “face time” throughout the whole movie. The rest of the time, he wears an unwieldy papier-mâché head on his shoulders, masking his true identity from the world. The premise leaves plenty of room for laughs, but at its core, it remains a deeply serious film. Its genius and depression and artistry are all uniquely tied together, strung together with laughs and sort of muted radiance.

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Though Room is a very different beast, it nonetheless scatters similar moments of delight throughout its dismal two-hour runtime. Jacob Tremblay’s performance as Jack is full of these moments. At the start of the film, he skips around Room greeting inanimate objects like their TV and wardrobe and toilet. He provides brief monologues interspersed throughout the movie, describing his life as only a child could. These moments help to break up the film’s more serious portions and (somehow) manages to seem light on its feet.

Brie Larson also does an excellent job as Joy, though her performance isn’t exactly what you’d call “heartwarming.” The film deals with her post-escape depression in such a raw, unfiltered way, which is ultimately what makes Room so difficult. Yet she shines in those tender moments with Jack, where she draws strength from their bond and remembers what’s truly important. Jack may be the product of her years in captivity, but he’s also what saves her from succumbing to her own fears.

All of this comes together to make Room one of the most precious films in recent years. It’s not for everyone, and it’s certainly not an easy watch. But it is a great film. Only time will tell if it is worthy of Best Picture, but even if it doesn’t go down in history, it’s guaranteed to haunt viewers long past their initial viewing.

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