The tyranny of the Hollywood movie trailer is rigorous, and it has ruined some of the surprises of Room, the new film based on Emma Donoghue’s harrowing but uplifting novel. That’s too bad, because her story about a powerful bond between a mother and child is best approached fresh, without the knowledge of where it’s going.
But even if you’ve seen the preview, Irish-born director Lenny Abrahamson’s film proves thrilling, moving and surprisingly humbling, a work with true emotional heft that highlights what Donoghue hammered home so effectively in her breathtaking book: that love inspires real courage, that strong attachments can help you to survive hardship, that we all have the opportunity to save each other.
Room is narrated by 5-year-old Jack (played with astonishing grace and gravity by Jacob Tremblay), who views his simple life with the casual acceptance of a thoughtful but inexperienced young child. He lives with his Ma (the terrific Brie Larson) in Room, where they do the sorts of things mothers and little boys do: Eat. Sleep. Watch TV. Play. Exercise. Scream into the vent or up at the skylight (there are no windows in Room, just a tantalizing glow from above).
Jack doesn’t question any of these things, because this is the life he knows. He’s smart and observant of his tiny world, and he believes he knows the difference between reality and fantasy. The plant in Room is real, but trees aren’t (no trees in Room; they’re only spotted on TV). Likewise, squirrels and dogs “are just TV.” He asks Ma, “Do we go into the TV for dreaming?” and listens to her patient answer.
A germ of a doubt arrives when he spots a live mouse, but like most children, he accepts what he has been told. On occasion, he throws a fit, but mostly he endures what he doesn’t like or understand, like the periodic visits of the shadowy figure they call Old Nick, which means Jack has to sleep in the closet, listening warily to the creaks and breathing outside his dark nest. And then one day, Ma upends his life with a terrifying plan that contradicts everything he has known.
Deftly adapted by Donoghue, Room sticks pretty closely to the book’s action. Abrahamson (who also directed the offbeat dark comedy Frank) uses Jack’s voiceover in an almost poetic way, revealing his inner confusion and turmoil but not to distraction — the film never becomes overly sentimental. The real trick, of course, was casting the perfect child actor to carry the heavy load, and Tremblay is a wonder. The smart camera work helps highlight Jack’s perspective, but Abrahamson has also coaxed a genuine, marvelous performance out of the kid that’s key to the film’s emotional weight.
Larson, too, is terrific (if you haven’t seen her in the unsung but wonderful film Short Term 12, get thee to Netflix). Watching the expressions flit across Ma’s face as she steels herself to bend a reluctant Jack to her will may be the film’s most poignant scene. Desperate and afraid, she understands the riskiness of her plan, but she doesn’t merely adore Jack: She believes in him enough to trust him with their lives, a haunting testament to the power of love.
The film’s agonizing moments play out with almost excruciating suspense; so deeply invested are you in the fates of Ma and Jack that you could easily forget to breathe. But Room isn’t merely a thriller; like our lives, it winds onward past immediate trauma, because Donoghue knows that freedom is only half the battle. Surviving one bad thing doesn’t mean we’re home free. “You’re gonna love it,” Ma tells Jack within the dark confines of Room. “What?” he asks. “The world,” she replies. He doesn’t know what that means, but we do, in all its heartfelt glory.
Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, William H. Macy.
Director: Lenny Abrahamson.
Screenwriter: Emma Donoghue, from her novel.
An A24 Films release. Running time: 118 minutes. Language. Opens Friday Oct. 30 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema. Opens in more theaters Nov. 7.