Independent movies might not have the benefit of large production budgets, but they are effective ways of storytelling outside the Hollywood system. Some of them prove to be critically acclaimed with moderate returns, while many tend to be largely ignored by audiences. However, there are those rare few examples that are surprise hits and become dark horse hits at the box office and contenders.
Such is the case for Room, an Irish-Canadian drama directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 best-selling novel, who also adapted it into a screenplay. Nominated for four Academy Awards, the film is a gripping, moving story of surviving captivity, overcoming past traumas, the passage of time, and the bond between parents and children.
Five-year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has spent his whole life in an enclosed, 10×10 foot garden shed called “Room” with his mother Joy (Brie Larson). They are dependent on a man called “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) for sustenance, and their only connection to the wider world is through a television and a small skylight. To Jack, Room is his whole world, and he feels happy with his confined surroundings.
Unknown to Jack, Room is also their prison. Seven years previously, Old Nick had abducted Joy when she was a college student, and Jack is the result of rape. Despite her grim circumstances, Joy is determined to raise her son to be healthy and strong, as well as keeping her captor from seeing him. Now that Jack is five, he is beginning to ask questions that she finds hard to answer. Further complicating things, Old Nick has been laid off from his job, thus severely limiting their supplies. Realizing they cannot stay in their prison forever, Joy devises a plan for them to fight for their freedom.
What follows is an exhilarating, albeit terrifying experience for Jack, as he comes to experience the outside world for the first time. During a tense sequence, he manages to escape Old Nick and leads the police to Joy. In a short period of time, both mother and child have to readjust to life in society and connect with family members. Unfortunately, Joy is forced to contend with the world she left behind and the seven years she lost in captivity. Her parents Nancy (Joan Allen) and Robert (William H. Macy) have separated in her absence. Nancy is now in a relationship with family friend Leo (Tom McCamus), while Robert is unable to acknowledge Jack without being reminded of his daughter’s abuse. As the family struggles to cope, Jack and Joy’s relationship is put to the test.
Academy-Award nominee Brie Larson delivers a powerful performance as Joy. As a young woman, she is devoted to the care and protection of her son, who has become her sole reason to live. Upon the character’s return to society, Larson shows the difficulties that Joy has in processing her ordeal. Her response to an insensitive reporter’s questions and subsequent breakdown are among the most heartbreaking scenes in the film.
Room’s biggest surprise is nine-year old Jacob Tremblay, who serves as the film’s emotional core. With a handful of credits to his name, the young actor is in virtually every scene of the film’s running time. Tremblay’s natural acting ability and charisma are endearing, and it is frustrating as to why he was overlooked for an Academy Award nomination. Precocious and inquisitive, he succeeds in playing Jack as a real child without overacting or coming off as artificial.
The supporting cast provides solid performances. Sean Bridgers’ portrayal of Old Nick is unsettling and difficult to watch, especially with regard to the abuse inflicted on Joy. He succeeds in conveying the increased anger and nervousness of an abductor. While she only appears in the film’s latter half, Joan Allen delivers strong, motherly support as a woman determined to help her daughter heal and overcome past traumas. Her firm, resolute speech to Joy is one of her finest acting moments.
The ever-reliable William H. Macy has a minor role as Robert, who cannot bear to look at Jack without thinking of what his daughter endured. His difficulty in acknowledging his grandson is difficult yet realistic. McCamus is reliable as Joy’s surrogate paternal figure Leo, who provides warmth and support to Jack.
Abrahamson’s film is largely set within the tight confines of Room, thus allowing for a close focus on Joy and Jack’s relationship. One is able to feel and realize the claustrophobic nature of their confinement. Donoghue’s screenplay manages to keep the focus equally on Jack and Joy, as well as showing their life in captivity and how they cope with their escape. Stephen Rennick’s score has a quiet, somber tone, which feels appropriate for the film.
Room is an emotional film with strong performances. Larson is one of the finest actresses of her generation, and Tremblay appears to be set for a long career.
Abrahamson succeeds in delivering a gripping story within two hours. Four out of four stars.