Warning: This film and article contain references to explicit sexual content
As a young woman, a very present fear, often in the back of my mind, is of being abducted, molested or snatched from the safety of what I know and to be raped and murdered in a back alley. I carry mace in my pocket when I walk down an unfamiliar street at night in New York City, where I live. Brie Larson (Trainwreck), in Room, is that girl our mothers feared we might become.
She encountered that strange man our fathers warned us about. By the time the film opens, she’s been living as a captive in a single room for seven years, and every week she suffers nightly visits from her captor. She is so young, so painfully young. It’s heart wrenching to know that her sufferings extend -even beyond rape- to being forced into a mockery of companionship with the man who stole her life.
Larson, Oscar winner for this role, does not play a majestic, longsuffering young mother in Room - a character type we so often see in literature and film. Emma Donoghue, author of the original novel and the film’s screenplay, has not given us a soft-spoken damsel. This woman does not have it all together, pressing on cheerfully despite her circumstances. She has sallow skin, bad teeth, and vitamin deficiency. She screams at the skylight and snaps at her son.
Larson’s performance is noteworthy for how normal and unheroic she is. She didn’t make me feel like I was watching a legendary role on the silver screen. She made me curl up in my seat, aching for this nameless young woman who is probably not so different from me.
Act One of Room lets that premise really soak in as we learn about “Ma” through the eyes of her newly-five year old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay, The Smurfs 2). This room, with its stove, single bed, and ancient TV, is the only world Jack has ever known. It’s not “a” room or simply “this” room for him - it is Room. Beyond Room is “outer space,” and beyond that, “heaven” (where Jack came from, he explains).
It was captivating to watch Jack, in the true spirit of childhood, go about his cramped routines in relative contentment. After all, he had no outside world to compare his life to. I wondered, in that situation, what would I have taught my son about the world? Would I have told him - a child, who only understands by seeing and touching - anything different?
As we get to know the routine of this tiny family, it’s impossible not to feel gutted at the full life this young mother has somehow created for her son despite their prison. The “mom” part of my own brain immediately worried about how this boy could thrive on canned food - but she makes sure their captor brings him vitamins and fresh fruit. She oversees exercise routines so that Jack’s muscles grow strong. They do laundry together in the bathtub. She tucks him to sleep in the wardrobe on nights when “Old Nick” comes to stay in Ma’s bed.
In a way, it was delightful and encouraging to see how innovative and committed she has been to raising her son to be strong and joyful. But only delightful like watching a flower bloom from wreckage of a nuclear disaster: so much agony underscores every smile, every sign of life.
The first half of the film shows Ma continuing in survival mode: concessions, abuse, frustrations, and failed escape attempts. But Jack is five now, Ma explains to him. She has reached her breaking point, and he is finally big enough to help them find their freedom.
As hard-hitting as Act One is, the film’s latter half is a reminder that life can’t be compartmentalized. Pain, ache, and regret doesn’t just live in one room. So many escape films end with elation - with that tearful moment of freedom and embrace. Room shows us how hard it is to build life after trauma and abuse. When everything is broken, it can’t be fixed overnight.
Tremblay as Jack is an absolute light in this film. He’s precocious and adorable, but also a raging ball of too many feelings for his tiny body (as all children are, at five years old). At one point, his Ma tries to explain to him the brutal reality of their situation, and the largeness of the world outside that he just can’t comprehend. He looks into her face and protests, “I wanna be four again.”
Oh, my heart. I know, Jack. Me too.
It feels hard to write the right kind of review for a movie like this. Maybe it’s because Donoghue’s story and script is not pretty, it’s brutal. It’s a terrifying glimpse into the rotten core of humanity, of what it looks like when we reach the end of ourselves. I’ve never reached anything like that kind of breaking point in my own life - but I’ve still felt the sharp, needling sting of regret.
Room isn’t all heartbreak and despair. It’s also a testament to how we make each other stronger, how we aren’t meant to go at it alone.
“I’m not a good enough Ma,” she admits to Jack, running over all the could have, should have’s in her mind.
“But you’re Ma,” he responds simply.
That small moment summed up the whole emotional experience of watching Room, in a way. We all deal with rotten luck and our own failures. There’s no escaping either. But through it all, we’re in it together. Healing hurts, but hope might be the most resilient player in the human story.