Whether it’s homicidal Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin or Lisa the enigmatic sociopath in Girl Interrupted, portrayals of people struggling with issues related to mental health enter safe spaces like living rooms everyday and are in some cases the only engagement people have with the subject. Such representations can either reinforce negative assumptions about mental illness or, like Room, change how we think about them.
Room is a Canadian and Irish independent film, released in 2015. An unlikely success, it was shot on a budget of just $13 million. The film’s unique and validating approach to representing survivors of trauma and sexual violence contributed to its grossing over $30 million. Lead Brie Larson won an Academy Award for her breakout role as the abductee mother “Joy” undoubtedly also lending the film a great deal of interest.
However, Room has resonated with audiences in part because it refuses to play into popular conceptions of mental illness as a choice or a personal failing. There are few films that explore abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder as realistically and poignantly as Room while managing to avoid sensationalism and stereotyping.
Set in Akron, Ohio, the film follows Joy and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who, when we meet them, are locked in a single room and have been for years on end at the hands of a man they call “Old Nick”. They eat, sleep, play, dance, cry, and go to the bathroom all within the same dingy four walls. While Jack knows nothing of the outside world and at first believes that only Room exists, Joy reveals that she was kidnapped by Old Nick seven years prior at just seventeen, leaving her mother and father to wonder after her. She knows that she can’t stay there any longer and that Jack is her only hope for freedom.
To get him out though, she has to tell him the truth about the world. She tells him about dogs—real ones, not just the ones in TV land. She tells him about the house she grew up in and about his grandparents. Jack is frightened by all the newness and the betrayal of the world he knew and understood. At first, he’s angry and denies what Joy tells him. Soon though, sooner than any adult can overcome anger, he warms to the suggestion. He wonders what is outside and stares at the only window in Room, a skylight with a browning leaf stuck to the glass.
Old Nick comes to Room nightly using a secret code to open the door, and continually rapes Joy while Jack hides in a closet. Jack isn’t certain what is happening but knows, as is so often the case, that something just isn’t right. We barely get a clear shot of Old Nick, making him a faceless menace who threatens the wellbeing and sanity of Joy and Jack.
This stylistic choice allows audiences to ascribe their own meaning to Nick, given that we may not be able to directly relate to Joy’s horrifically extreme circumstances. Old Nick is that self-destructive voice in our heads, telling us we aren’t good enough or that we can’t go out in the world and seek the things we want because we will always fail. He’s the hand in the dark that grabs us without warning or consent. The hand we feel so much shame in talking about. However, Joy refuses to dwell in shame and is determined to escape.
Having failed in a plot to make Jack look sick so Old Nick would take him to the hospital where he could yell for help, Joy and Jack rehearse rolling Jack up in a carpet instead. He is to play dead, Joy weeping over his lifeless body, concealed in the rug until Old Nick is forced to the remove the corpse. Miraculously, the plan is a success, and where most abduction movies normally end, this one truly begins.
Joy and Jack find themselves in a hospital bed following the raid of Old Nick’s shed (where it turns out Room was located). Jack struggles to understand the new and much bigger external world while Joy battles internally with what’s happened to her and how many years she’s lost to captivity.
A truth about trauma and survival that not very many films address is the prevalence of depression and suicide in the period following acute trauma. When survival is secured and the battle is over, many people find that they’re still fighting for happiness, which hardly seems fair.
Joy agrees to appear in a TV interview to discuss her experiences but is wracked with guilt when the interviewer asks about her decision to keep Jack with her in Room for so long rather than have Old Nick leave him somewhere to be found. She looks at high school photos and is angry with her old friends for the average, easy lives they’ve managed to lead.
Joy’s envy is approached with a sense of validation by the filmmakers and not the slightest accusation of egotism or ungratefulness, which is so often the case in other films. It’s hard to understand why all the deep, dark feelings bubble up when life is seemingly good again. Maybe it’s the lack of distraction, maybe that’s just what’s left when all the adrenaline is finally drained, or maybe it’s the realization that even mundane life is hard.
Struggling with these thoughts and the discovery that her father can’t reconcile with the fact that Jack was a product of sexual assault, Joy attempts suicide. Again, we are confronted with a truth about mental illness that is rarely acknowledged. Sometimes the expectations of society, which dictate that we should be getting better already, are an additional burden, hindering recovery.
Following her attempt, Joy spends a period in hospital and Jack begins to grow and adapt to his new life with the knowledge that he’s doing so for Joy too now. He cuts off his long hair and sends it to her for strength. Tremblay’s portrayal of Jack is the cherry on top of this complex story. He is nothing but raw truth and there isn’t a moment in which we don’t believe him.
In a climate of entertainment that thrives on shock value and often portrays caricatures of mental illness rather than believable depictions, Room is unique. Brie Larson’s Joy doesn’t gain any genius from her mental illness (she’s not a “House”), nor is she presented as someone to lock away and never speak of again (she’s not a “Hannibal”). In Room, mental illness just is—a product of events that render us feeling powerless and the ways in which our brain attempts to handle that. Sometimes, our brains need a little help.