The new independent drama film by Lenny Abrahamson begins like most independent drama films: we’re given glimpses of someone waking up, of their immediate environment, of them starting out the day; we’re introduced to them with the small, bland details of their everyday life, accompanied by the appealing lilt of piano and strings; there’s a child, prone to cutesiness, guilelessly leading the camera around his corner of the world; and, not insignificantly, the adult in focus is played by Brie Larson, who lugged home an Academy Award for this performance a month ago.
But something is out of joint: the child – who looks like a girl, but is really a boy named Jack (Jacob Tremblay) – seems poorly acquainted with the concepts of being outside and what one may find there; he and his mother, Joy, can’t go out to buy the candles for his birthday cake; and every moment of their day takes place inside their small, crudely furnished room, which must be bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, and yard to them.
It’s no spoiler to say that it is shown to us that Joy and Jack are being kept in a tightly secured, soundproof room by a man known to them only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who apparently only comes in once a week to bring them what they need, and to routinely rape Joy while Jack sleeps in the cupboard with the doors closed. Nor is it much of a spoiler to say that Joy hatches more than a single escape plan, and persists until one of them works. She and Jack break free of captivity, and emerge into the bright, wide world somewhere before the film’s halfway mark.
I admit I somewhat dreaded going to see Room, not only because I thought I’d spend two hours witnessing the enforcement of both a horrible captivity and a sluggish Sundance-like plot, but also because when speaking about the film, many lauded it for its “fearless” (always a queasy term in the mouths of the consensus) depiction of the world and its wondrous and decaying state through the untainted eyes of a blameless child. Some readers may already know that I’m allergic to the sickly lovable and treacly ploys of employing doe-eyed youngsters to endear an audience to a film.
Thankfully, neither of these situations is the case. Well, not entirely. More than half the film shows precisely what I wanted to see: how the freed mother and son fare in the outside world, how their family handles their return, how she adjusts to the changes that have occurred in the seven years she was missing, how the press reacts to the story, how Jacob reacts to a world far larger than he had initially thought, and how Joy and Jacob recover from the horrific ordeal they’ve undergone. Larson is a deft actor, as we’ve seen in the countless small roles she’s inhabited for over half a decade (Scott Pilgrim vs the World remains particularly memorable for me) and intelligently evokes a swirling, souring brew of sorrow, desolation, anger, worry, hope, and determination, and the presence of a life going on beneath her bleak circumstances.
Tremblay, on the other hand, is indeed used to trap us in the film’s sticky, saccharine net of childish studies on The Way Things Are. He explains to us, in a purposefully artless voice over, what he first believes is real (everything inside Room, as he calls his garden shed dwelling) and is not (everything he reads about in his books and sees on television, which is not in evidence in Room), then what he newly understands to be real – grass, sharks, large houses, men and women of assorted appearances, chocolate, etc. Abrahamson lets us in on Jacob’s amazement when he discovers everything outside Room and how large it all is; what we’re not privy to is Jacob’s specific experience of the constricted world in which he’s grown up. Jacob isn’t completely cut off from reality – he watches television and reads Alice in Wonderland and hears about mythical creatures such as dogs and rabbits, and must surely have some ideas and fantasies of his own about things and places other than what he knows. He mentions having a dream in an early conversation, but Abrahamons neglects to let us know what it is Jacob could possibly have dreamed about, or what it may have looked like.
The world is an impossibly large place to a child and is attended with staggering possibility, and the best films about childhood, such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, always manage to convey that largeness and wonder. Abrahamson shows some of it, but only when it’s easy and unsurprising – when Jacob sees the sky and the trees for the first time – and not when I was truly curious to see it. Room is not the astounding revelation of childhood it’s described as. Its pleasures are intellectual, in the limited study of Joy’s psychology after her release, and commercial, in the good it has done for at least two young artists’ careers. For great aesthetic delights, as I have said before on this blog, one usually has to look a little further than the Oscar nominees.