Finding Hope From a Child’s Perspective in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (2015)

With SAG and Golden Globe nominations already pouring in, Room is a movie you are going to be hearing a lot about in the next few months, and for good reason. Based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel of the same name, the movie relies almost solely on its two leads to tell the story of Ma and her son, Jack. What could have been a huge gamble, however, has resulted in one of the most inspiring pictures of the year.

Kidnapped by Old Nick as a teenager, after he told her he was looking for his lost dog, Ma has been trapped in the shed behind his house for seven years. From within these horrible conditions the only good thing that has happened to her is  Jack, and protecting him from Old Nick and his nightly visits becomes both her mission and saving grace. Going by no other name than “Ma,” it’s more than a title for what she is—it’s who she is, and  it’s an identity she clings to in order to cope with the otherwise overwhelming bleakness of their living arrangements.

For Jack, on the other hand, Room, with its lone window of a skylight, is all he’s ever known. Always made to look away when the shed door opens, he can’t conceptualize the idea that there’s a whole big world outside that he’s never experienced—that the trees and people and cars he sees on TV are real and exist, just on the other side of four, cramped walls. To him, Room is a huge space—the only space; his home.

Thus when Ma introduces the notion of leaving, Jack doesn’t want to go and it’s here that Room, as a movie, rises to a whole higher level. It’s Jack’s fifth birthday and as a special treat Ma has saved up enough ingredients for them to bake a cake. Jack jumps at the opportunity but when it’s finished, and he realizes they don’t have any candles to blow out and make a wish, the effect is ruined. Birthday cakes have to have candles, he yells at Ma, refusing to eat a slice. Birthday cakes on TV have candles.

An amazingly authentic performance by Jacob Tremblay, watching Jack is a reminder of how children really behave and how often film and TV get it wrong, to the point that you don’t even notice the contrivances until you see an actor like Tremblay in comparison. As viewers we empathize with Ma and we cringe when Jack yells at her, knowing as we do the constraints she is under. At the same time, it makes sense that Jack’s upset! Like every other human being, kids get upset, and not just when it’s deserved or convenient for the people around them but when they’re angry or don’t get their way or simply don’t understand why not. That doesn’t mean he’s a brat or has no compassion for Ma’s struggles. All it means is he’s acting his age. The beauty of Jack is that, because he doesn’t grasp the cruelty and unusualness of their living arrangement, he doesn’t curb his behavior. This is his normal so he acts like it’s normal, which means sometimes he’s going to be grumpy, just like sometimes Ma is going to have a “Gone Day,” when depression prevents her from getting out of bed.

It’s this child’s perspective that makes Room so incredibly hopeful, despite its subject matter. By focusing on the sweet ways Jack makes sense of what’s happening to him, the film is able to avoid censoring the realities of their situation but also makes watching their story bearable. Ma does know the truth—and it’s thanks to the subtlety of Brie Larson’s acting that we are able to catch brief, crushing glimpses of the pain we realize she must be going through. We rarely actually see it, though, because she has to keep being Ma, a role that not only provides her with the strength to continue fighting but protects her from constantly thinking about her reality and loss.

I don’t want to be five—I want to be four again, Jack tells Ma when she slowly starts to try and explain what’s really going on. With the idea being to work towards a point where Jack understands enough that they can attempt to pull off an escape, this new information overwhelms him. Ma claims that he’s old enough to know now, but Jack has the perfect solution to that—just let him be younger again. That way things can remain as they were. Nothing has to change. What Jack doesn’t realize, that viewers do, is that Old Nick’s abuses are only getting worse (at one point he tries to strangle Ma). They need to find a way out, while she remains his only target.

Like so many before him, Jack rejects one of the biggest downfalls to growing up—the inability to remain unaware. The difference is that in their case, it’s more important than ever that he does.

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