Room is, as its name suggests, is a story with a focus so small it inspires claustrophobia. It follows one mother-son relationship, between five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother, Joy (Brie Larson), most often called Ma. Their bond derives its intensity from being the sole relationship in their lives; when the film begins, Jack and Ma are captives in a garden shed. Years earlier, Joy was snatched in a kidnapping scenario similar to the Ariel Castro case in Cleveland.
Adapted by writer Emma Donoghue from her own 2010 novel, Room‘s universe may widen as the movie goes on, but the scope of the story does not. It remains an exploration of motherhood under extreme duress. Larson is certainly up to the task. Her performance is powerful. She alternates between love and hope, depression and despair, anger and frustration, and — harshest of all — guilt. “I’m sorry I’m not nice anymore,” she hisses at one point, and that one sentence seems to cycle through all those aforementioned emotions in just six words.
And yet, Larson’s character is not the vessel for storytelling. Like the novel, the film sticks to Jack’s point of view. That blunts the trauma slightly. All of the devastating aspects of his unfortunate upbringing are filtered through a child who doesn’t know anything else and can’t mourn for what he’s missing. In fact, Jack enjoys much about his life in captivity. Of course, the film can’t adhere so strictly to one individual’s perspective, and so the camera adds in a layer of observation. Jack might not realize what his mother’s pained expression means when he asks what a back yard is, but the audience does. It’s an oddly sideways way of approaching a character study: we observe the way Jack fails to understand his mother completely.
Still, Jack is our entry into the story. And it’s to the movie’s credit that Jack, despite the circumstances of his childhood, is like a normal five-year-old. Tremblay’s performance follows suit. He’s not overly precocious or movie-kid cute. He’s not fragile in a way that he evokes a mothering instinct, like he needs extra protection from the outside world. And, when he’s upset, he’s given to tantrums and bouts of high-pitched screaming. It takes discipline for a movie to make a child in such peril so ordinary, especially when that child serves as the movie’s narrator.
And yet, while Room deserves much credit for its representational restraint, it provides Jack with an intermittent and ill-advised voiceover. Perhaps Donoghue’s temptation to borrow her own words was strong — after all, she already wrote the story once, and perfectly — but rarely does the narration add ideas or emotional effects that can’t be observed onscreen. And, not only does it become unnecessary plot summary, it’s also delivered in a cheesy, echoing, dreamlike way that doesn’t fit the look and feel of the rest of the movie.
Director Lenny Abrahamson’s previous film, Frank, was almost smaller in scale, focusing on just one character trapped in a smaller area, his own headspace. Here he keeps the look of the film grounded in expected ways. The camera maintains handheld, documentary imagery, though not in a showy way. In the titular room, Jack and Ma are photographed under light that gives everything a sickly tint, their eyes’ dark circles and other skin blemishes visible, their hair long, limp, and stringy. Outside of the room, the light gets brighter, but not necessarily more comforting, starting off harshly and too brightly.
These details don’t call attention to themselves, but they also don’t improve the film. Instead, Room is a straight-ahead retelling of the novel. With such rich source material, the film is both superficially gripping and psychologically rich, handled by actors with the chops to pull it off. But Abrahamson doesn’t push the book beyond its boundaries. He doesn’t open up the material at all, either narratively or visually. Instead, the story is, like Jack and Joy, its own kind of captive, not allowed to break free.