The old cliché is that a movie’s story was “ripped from the headlines,” the predecessor of “based on a true story.” Oftentimes those “ripped” stories involved a prurient element or a sensational slant, and the movies were the B pics of the 1950s, the exploitation films of the 1970s, or the latest offering on Lifetime Channel today. However, movies can rise above that level. Instead of waving around a black-and-white ripped picture, they can create an oil painting that’s richly colored and textured with the nuance of light and shadow. Room is such a picture.
While there have been stories in the papers about situations similar to the one in Room, this film carries no “based on a true story” line. Instead it was based on the award-winning 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue, and Donoghue also did the screenplay for the film. It’s not easy to capture the complexity of a novel well on the screen – another too-often true cliché is that the book’s better than the movie – but Donoghue has done a sterling job.
Room is essentially told from the viewpoint of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who is about to have his 5th birthday. To him, the room where he lives with Ma (Brie Larson) is his world; to start his day he walks around and greets the bed, the wardrobe, the stove, and the other elements of the room as if they are fellow inhabitants. There’s no window, only a skylight, and while they have a television Ma has told him that the programs are all made up things, not real. She created the fiction to hide the truth from Jack that for 7 years she has been imprisoned by a man she calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). For the first part of the night, Jack sleeps in the wardrobe, so he can’t see what happens when Old Nick comes into the room. As time goes by, though, Ma begins to fear that Old Nick may intend to harm Jack. She devises a plan to get them out, but first she must destroy the fantasy world she’s created for Jack.
Normally for a “ripped from the headlines” movie, it would end with the escape. With Room it’s only the first half of the film. Just as compelling – in some ways even more powerful – is the struggle of both Ma and Jack to integrate into the world outside of Room. Donoghue looks at how Ma’s parents Robert and Nancy (William H. Macy and Joan Allen), whose marriage dissolved after Ma’s abduction at 17, deal with both her return as well as having a new grandson under those circumstances. Where does Nancy’s new husband Leo (Tom McCamus) fit in with these dynamics?
Brie Larson had done an excellent job earlier in 2015 as Amy Schumer’s sister in Trainwreck, but that was just an hor d’oeuvre while Room is a seven course meal. She has to flow through a massive range of emotions within multiple scenes and she nails it each time. It is a fierce performance, and last weekend Larson won the SAG award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture for the performance, beating out both Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren, among others. It was richly deserved.
Even more vital to the success of the movie, though, is Jacob Tremblay’s performance as Jack. It is without artifice, wonderfully natural. There are times he’s harsh and judgmental, just like a normal child can be, but you also see the indelible bond between Ma and Jack. Room may be their physical world, but emotionally they are each other’s world.
Director Lenny Abrahamson has mostly worked in his native Ireland in independent films and television. He guides the story with a fine sense of balance and understanding of the characters. Filming inside the room so that the audience feels the claustrophobic world would have been a challenge for any director, but Abrahamson also imbues the filming with Jack’s sense of wonder and innocence.
Room has been nominated for Best Picture, and also was tagged for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress. This is an incredibly powerful, raw, and in the end life-affirming film. It goes beyond the surface of the horrifying situation and refuses to sensationalize it. Instead you care for Ma and Jack as people, not plot points. In the end this is a story of human resiliency, and also of grace.