Film Review: “Room” opens a door on abuse, wonder
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Written by Emma Donoghue (based on her book)
Produced by A24, Element Pictures, and No Trace Camping
It’s astounding to consider that a person could go missing only to reemerge years later. The actual case of Elisabeth Fritzl, imprisoned for 24 years in the basement of her father’s Austrian home, raises unsettling questions. What would it be like to breathe fresh air again? To feel grass under your feet? How would the trauma of being locked away and abused complicate your view of the world? How would you connect the person who disappeared with the person who’s now much older, finally on the other side of those walls?
Lenny Abrahamson’s Room provides thoughtful answers. Its vessel is Joy, abducted at 17 by a stranger asking for help. The movie opens seven years into her imprisonment in a tiny backyard shed. She has a son, Jack, who’s just turned five. We start doing the grotesque math. But there’s an obvious tenderness between the two. Jack has never been outside. His mother satisfies his burgeoning curiosity. Room is the world. Chair, Toilet, and Mouse are its citizens. The only window looks straight up into Heaven, where Jack came from. A television points at other signs of life, but it might as well be a window into another planet.
At night “Old Nick” punches in a code at the door, and Jack peers through the slits in a makeshift wardrobe as terrible acts unfold. This tender world has horrible truths, and Abrahamson and author/screenwriter Emma Donoghue force us to look at them through a child’s eyes. When Joy finally tells Jack about the outside world, her descriptions come gushing out in random, beautiful details. Trees aren’t just TV creations. They’re real. So are turtles, squirrels, and dogs. Would you believe it?
Room has two distinct halves. In the first, we root for Joy and Jack to overcome their awful circumstances. Things take an unconventional turn in the second. Another movie bent on audience catharsis might have focused on the fate of the man who kept them locked up. But Room is a story about survivors of abuse, and how they come to terms with an inevitable aftermath. Freedom is only the first step. Imagine cowering at the sound of a closing door. Imagine the people in your life growing old, divorcing, getting on with their lives in your unexplained absence. Imagine where you’d fit in.
Brie Larson continues her streak of impressive dramatic work following Short Term 12 and Rampart. William H. Macy, Joan Allen, and Tom McCamus give important if understated performances as proprietors of life beyond the walls. Most impressive is young Jacob Tremblay, wholly believable and sensitive as Jack. In a movie that raises this many questions, he’s our path into understanding what’s real.
Room flails a bit toward the end, not quite sure where to land its characters once they’re jettisoned. But it works as a film very much about wonder. The sky is so big and open. The world is a whirlwind of sight, sound, and taste. Everyone’s in a hurry. There’s so much space and so little time. When Jack hears a phone ringing in person, he gasps. When he finally sees a real-life dog, it’s a mythical encounter. There is beauty despite suffering. We are fortunate to see it.
Room is playing at the ByTowne Cinema through Thursday, November 19th. Visit www.bytowne.ca for showtimes.