For five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the world is contained within Room, and Room is the world. Sure, TV will show you things like trees, dogs, and smiling people going about their varied lives, but everything on the screen is just artifice; two dimensional images designed to entertain and divert from the churn of day-to-day life that takes place in the 100 square-foot universe. The cosmos' only other consistent inhabitant is Ma (Brie Larson), a warm and patient 20-something who is occasionally visited by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), a perhaps-real humanoid who supplies the boy and his mother with food, clothes, and other accessories through pure and unexplainable magic. We as audience members are quick to pick up on the grisly reality of Jack and Ma’s situation, but in Lenny Abrahamson's new film Room, we see the world through Jack’s eyes, and his eyes are about to be opened.
Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name (Donoghue also provides the screenplay here), Room presents some of the darkest, cruelest aspects of man through the eyes of a youth who is far too naive to process them fully, thereby keeping all of that misery just out of arm’s reach. Where a wiser protagonist might wallow in the nightmarish reality of Ma's evening hours, Jack considers them with ignorance and curiosity. He looks on his impossibly limited existence with the same childlike wonder through which every kid views the entire planet, a notion that is accentuated by Danny Cohen's ever-communicative cinematography. The film follows in the footsteps of recent hits The Martian and Bridge of Spies in terms of its dedication to walking right up to the pit of despair without ever being swallowed whole, but this decision is less about aligning itself with positive thinking than it is a different set of priorities altogether.
Never stepping into thriller territory for more than a few fleeting moments at a time, Room is, at its heart, a familial drama focused on the unique bond between mother and child, and the galvanizing force of parenthood. Larson is a shoe-in for a Best Actress nomination at this year's Academy Awards, and while her performance is decidedly less showy than the stuff that tends to win golden statues, the connection she forms with Tremblay is sincere and believable from first frame to last. The 9-year-old Tremblay is her match, his every movement and syllable proving so natural that you almost forget you're watching an actor, and not just a child trying almost everything for the first time. Most all the film's best moments involve Jack discovering untold realities previously understood to be lore, and the way Tremblay handles these scenes is astonishing.
All of the stuff in between, however, is less than riveting. Abrahamson favors raw acting and minimal directorial flourish, and while his meat-and-potatoes approach has and will continue to work for some, it doesn't exactly glue your eyes to the screen. Nor does the movie's narrative drama, which, as previously mentioned, is intentionally forced to the background in favor of character work, but the film's undying affection for mundanity wares on the viewer over a long two-hour runtime. Perhaps most damningly, the ideas contained within Donoghue's script, while immediately dazzling and troubling in equal measure, are unmissable and unmoving, prompting one to ponder and then re-ponder, and finally grow weary of pondering the very same thing over and over again. There's no doubt in my mind that this is the exact film that Abrahamson wanted to make, and its level of intentionality and accomplishment are to be admired, but I for one found my mind drifting off long before the end credits rolled. The movie will surely strike a chord with parents that someone on the other side of that situation could never fully understand, but at this exact point in time in my perhaps under-developed life story, Room just comes off as a bit flat.