Lenny Abrahamson deserves whatever accolades come his way for Room, though he’s been making very good movies for a long time. Last year’s Frank was a challenging piece about a mentally frazzled rock musician who hid behind a cumbersome paper-mâché mask. A few years earlier was Garage, about a mentally challenged mechanic and his clumsy foray into the world of women and partying. Room continues Abrahamson’s recurring theme of isolated people coming to grips with the “real world,” and judging by the awards and fine reviews heaped upon it, all he needed to do was switch his attention to a trapped woman instead of an emotionally stunted man. These days, it seems, moviegoers don’t particularly care for the problems of men, unless the men are hunky types, or wear suits of iron.
Room, based on Emma Donaghue’s novel, has what Abrahamson’s other movies had, but in sweeter, less challenging, and perhaps less brilliant terms. Without the slightly deranged, occasionally off-putting characters of his other films, he focuses on normal people in deranged circumstances. Previously, his characters suffered in seclusion because of their own psychological problems. Here, they’re forced into isolation. This, I imagine, has also helped the movie’s reception; audiences may still view psychologically hampered characters as less compelling than, say, a woman trapped in a shed by a psychopath, which is ostensibly the story of Room. At age 17, Joy Newcomb was abducted by a man and kept locked in a shed. Her captor, known only as Old Nick, keeps her there as a sexual prisoner, raping her every night for years. She’s eventually pregnant and gives birth to Jack, an adorable boy who lives in the shed with her. Old Nick gives them just enough to survive on – food, heat, running water, a television, the occasional toy for Jack - but Joy’s real achievement is in the way she raises Jack in their tiny enclosure. She plays games with him, tells him stories, and keeps his mind sharp, as sharp as a kid can possibly be in an environment known simply as “room.”
The film’s apparent plot involves Joy’s plan to escape. She’s tried a few times before, but Old Nick is a wily, sometimes brutal imprisoner. As Jack turns five, he seems smart enough to assist his ma in an incredible gamble. There’s great drama in watching Joy instruct Jack in her plan, made doubly dramatic because of Jack’s reluctance. The room is all he’s ever known, and leaving it is a frightening proposition. But the real story is about what happens to Jack and Joy once they’ve escaped, and the serpentine road back to normalcy. Jack is the one people worry about, but Joy is the one who has the meltdown. She’d held it together for so many years in the shed that freedom unravels her.
The world Joy reenters is full of anxiety, red-tape, and suppressed anger. She learns her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) are divorced, and her mother now lives with an old family friend named Leo. Television reporters want to get in on the abduction story, as do several doctors, lawyers, and psychiatrists. Young Jack is bewildered by the immensity of the world. “Everything moves so fast that I don’t know where to look,” he says. There’s real pain in the world, insidious and subtle though it may be, and edging back into normal life isn’t easy. Joy wonders why she isn’t happier. I think it’s because the every day grind of life is a kind of poison, and if you haven’t taken it in a while, it’s hard to get used to the bitter taste.
An example of what Joy comes back to is the way her father reacts. He can’t bring himself to look at Jack. It’s as if he’s less bothered by his daughter’s abduction than the fact that she’s had a child out of wedlock. It was an uptight Waspish family from which Joy was taken, and it doesn’t take long for the old tensions to arise. This part of the movie feels a bit forced, as if Abrahamson was more comfortable with the weird part of the story, which he handles in a beautiful way; the family saga feels lifted from a Lifetime network drama. Fortunately, even these scenes are balanced out by Jack’s otherworldly presence.
There may not be a better performance given this year, from a male or a female of any age, than Jacob Tremblay’s turn as young Jack. Feral, almost androgynous in the early scenes, he’s gradually transformed into a regular boy. Tremblay’s ease and naturalness in the role is remarkable. The scenes where he meets his first dog, tastes his first ice cream, or looks out a hospital window and sees the vastness of the world, are all perfect, as is the way he interacts with his mother. It’s a performance that won’t be matched by any child soon, maybe not even by Tremblay.
The other performances are nearly as flawless, the very faces of the actors revealing more than pages of dialogue. As Joy, Brie Larson shows the absolute weariness of someone in her situation, a weariness that threatens to outpace the great love she has for her son, and suggests that even if Jack can make the adjustment to real life, maybe she won’t. Tom McCamus is perfect as Leo. He's the sort of good-natured oaf who can easily become part of Jack's life. Joan Allen finds the right way to play an ordinary woman trying to be a normal grandma to her odd grandson. Even Sean Bridgers is spot-on as Old Nick, reminding me of Bruce Dern in some of his creepier roles.
When the movie ended I found myself wondering about Joy and Jack. Did they survive in the real world? Not surprisingly, the movie left me depressed and irritable for several hours. That’s ok, though. Some movies are good that way. Abrahamson may have invented a new genre: the enchanting bummer.