Emma Donoghue and Lenny Abrahamson's Room, adapted from Donoghue's acclaimed novel, is a cathartic exploration of the trauma at the heart of the love between mother and child. The horrific premise—that young mother Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) and her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), are prisoners in a psychopath's shed—is kept in the background; Donoghue uses it to intensify uncomfortable emotions intrinsic to parenting and early childhood.
The first act is confined to "Room," Jack and Joy's name for their prison. The tiny, banal space is made alien by the way they give everyday objects proper names: A table becomes Table, their bed, Bed. Jack's reality is divided between TV, his physical experience and Outer Space, or everything beyond Room. Joy plays along until she can't, and their eventual escape is a Matrix-like rewriting of Jack's cosmos. Room's continuing hold on them is filtered through Jack's amusing, often touching attempts to comprehend the change.
One of Room's more daring moves is to highlight how trauma can be deepened through a parent's efforts to protect her child. After letting Jack believe Room is all there is, Joy must shatter his illusions all at once. In her parents' home, she struggles with Jack's growing independence. The pair's performances in these wrenching sequences deserve their Oscar buzz.
Danny Cohen's cinematography ties us to Jack's point of view via tight close-ups, restricting spatial detail even outside of Room. This works well for scenes of suspense and tragedy, grounding events that would otherwise be hard to accept outside the genres of horror or melodrama. Unfortunately, an intrusive score won't stop reminding us we're watching an Indie Drama. While the narrative pacing is impeccable, key moments would have had more impact with space to breathe.
Underlying Room is the story of Austria's Elisabeth Fritzl, who was held captive by her father in his cellar for 24 years, where she raised three of their seven children before eventually escaping.
Room is inspired by, not based on, the Fritzl story, but a few hanging threads from the source material beg to be tied. Keeping the captor incidental to the plot avoids cliché at the cost of making his behavior seem inconsistent: If he's such a monster, why does he obey Joy's demand that he never even see his son? Why doesn't he try harder to prevent their escape?
We don't know because Jack can't. The quasi-mythic quality his perception gives to the film suggests that in order to represent the unimaginable, we're faced with the impossible task of making whole worlds out of fragments.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Behind closed doors"