We take a lot for granted out in the world. It’s full of space and objects, enough so that we can overlook just how much “thingness” there is to our everyday existence. Imagine a world then of only ten feet by ten feet, a world where every item has a sense of permanency to it: Bed, Wardrobe, Skylight. It's in this confined universe that five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has lived every day, slept every night, unaware of anything else — Room is the only world he has ever known.
Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s Booker shortlisted novel, Room is a minor masterpiece in microcosm. The film quickly establishes the minutiae that makes up the routine between him and Ma (Short Term 12’s Brie Larson): running “track”, back and forth between two walls; skewering egg shells on string to make mobiles; or just watching TV. At night, though, Old Nick (Deadwood’s Sean Bridgers) comes calling. Only he knows the number to open Door.
As directed by Frank’s Lenny Abrahamson, Room starts off a study in microcosm and mythology. Jack’s starry-eyed voice-over creates a sense of wonder at odds with the mottled brown walls, the ugly wear and tear of their environment. Ma clearly adores him, but she has off days, days of frustration and depression. How many more birthdays can Jack spend in this nutshell (even if he does count himself a king of infinite space)? The only option is escape.
Room is, after all, also about survival. Jack is understandably unwilling to accept Ma’s changing story about the nature of reality. The film is so grounded in Room and Jack’s embracing of its limitations that its second act gear shift feels tense; not just because of the likelihood of discovery by their guarded captor but in the disorienting scale and Space that lies beyond Room. It’s impossible to imagine what the equivalent might be for us.
Tremblay turns in an utterly convincing performance as Jack. Neither cloying nor obnoxious as his angelic features and Samson hair might suggest, he embodies instead both naivety and resilience: coddle and presumptuous, but with enough elasticity in him to bounce back. While Jack is arguably the lead, Brie Larson’s traumatised Ma — otherwise known as Joy Newsome — is no less remarkable; desperately trying, but layered in guilt, anger, and grief.
Their reintegration into society is not a seamless one. Luckily then, there is also grandma, Nancy (three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen), warm if timid, and her new beau, the shaggy, easygoing Leo (Canadian actor Tom McCamus). William H. Macy is largely sidelined as Grandpa Robert, unable to deal with the sight of his ill-begotten grandchild, but he makes the most of his brief screen-time; craggy, industrious, and silently heartbroken.
Room’s first half is extraordinary in its presentation of a tight, self-contained world, but it becomes when it dares to take the lid off that box. It’s only once we step outside that we see Jack and Ma’s surroundings in more than just cross-section. Donoghue’s script and Abrahamson’s direction crystallizes the potential for joy and tragedy in the smallest moments; your first present or lick from a dog. Room, simply put, is life.