‘Room’ Review: Comforting Claustrophobia

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Reading Time: 5 minutes


There’s a scene in Room where five-year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has gotten his pony tail cut by his grandmother, Nancy Newsome (Joan Allen). It’s a beautifully shot scene, beginning with the pony tail snipped off, and then Nancy washing Jack’s hair in the sink, him enjoying the process of the soap rinsing, while telling his grandma to be careful that soap doesn’t get into his eyes. Then, in a long shot, he’s sitting on the chair, facing the mirror, she standing next to him, both appraising her work. And he tells her, matter-of-fact, “I love you, Grandma.” You want to see her expression in the long shot, but you can’t. Your eyes are blurred with tears, that’s how beautiful that scene is. Joan Allen swallows a lump, as you do, and you’ve just experienced yet another exquisite moment in life in a cinema hall.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson with screenplay by Emma Donoghue based on her novel, there’s a reason why the seemingly ordinary turn is so moving and emotional. The movie opens in an 11 by 11 room, where Jack and his Ma, Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) are held captive by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). The room has no windows, just a skylight, and this is where Jack was born. The room is the only world the boy’s seen all his life, and his friends are the sink, bed, toilet, TV, bathtub, and bed. The only other living person Jack knows is Old Nick, when he comes to visit his mother in the night. Ma ensures that Old Nick doesn’t interact with her son, and Nick doesn’t seem to care much for his biological son either.

From this spindle, director Abrahamson weaves a compelling, claustrophobic, yet insightful tale of love and courage. There’s a scene where, after Jack turns five, Ma tells him of the existence of another world outside of the Room, and that there are real people, Grandma, Grandpa, and of how she was abducted when she was seventeen and kept in the room for the last seven years. That scene is beautifully performed by both actors – Brie Larson expectorating her emotions and frustrations, her hope hinged on the maturity of a five year old, while Jacob superbly staving off any attack on the world he’s known, the only world he’s known, tears rolling down as he refuses to believe his mother.

'Room' is a journey out of darkness, director says
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star in “Room.” (Ruth Hurl/Element Pictures)

There’s more crests of scenes to come. Take the one where Joy helps Jacob escape. If you’ve ever wondered if nail biting tension and heart-breaking emotions can ever form a soluble mix, this scene is it. Your heart’s in your mouth, you don’t want to breathe, but your breath seems to condense into tears as the director shoots some brilliant drama in a blue hue in the back of a truck, even as Jack sees the outside world for the very first time. Director Abrahamson rides a brilliant wave of scintillating emotions that are never mercurial, but not bland either, and it’s a good ten minutes before you actually breathe easy.

Joan, William, Brie - homecoming is just the beginning
Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Brie Larson: homecoming’s just the beginning

And here’s where Room matures into a fine real world struggle, as Joy comes into her parents’ home, only to discover that Nancy and her father, Robert (William H. Macy) have separated, and Nancy’s got a boyfriend at home, Leo (Tom McCamus). Here’s also where the movie is a journey of discovery, as much for the characters as it is for you, both sets discovering that escape from Room was only the beginning of clinging on to faith. It’s also when you discover the beautiful nature of kids, of how they eventually cope, and accept. It’s a heart-warming segment of how many crutches we as adults lean on, and how dealing with trauma can never be a solo affair. It throws light on how a devastating incident creates seismic cracks in relationships, personalities, and families. This is also the part where you, along with Jack, discover the wonder that is the world that we live in, of things that we take for granted, even as we all live in Rooms of our own making. There’s a beautiful scene in which Jack begins to warm up Leo – it’s so beautifully done, with such grace and a light, understated directorial and acting touch, it simply caresses your cheeks with another round of saline appreciation.  And there’s the haircut scene. Jack copes, and so well.

Tom McCamus - breaking ice and bread
Tom McCamus: breaking ice and bread

Ma Joy, on the other hand, tries to take the easy way out, and while enabling Jack to do all the coping, also opens her own eyes on what a gift life is, of what a powerful bond she and Jack share, of how both she and Jack require closure of what they endured.

Brie, Joan - mothers biond
Brie Larson, Joan Allen: mothers’ bond

Room has a cast that’s stellar – the supportive, loving, Joan Allen, the gravelly and understanding Tom McCamus, and the looking-the-other-way William H. Macy. But the movie belongs to two actors – Brie Larson (who won a Best Actress Academy Award), diving into a complex role with the ease of a captive mermaid, lending emotional heft but never making you wince, giving a feather-like delicate touch to her struggle and trauma, and not letting go of her maternal love and instincts, except when she’s wracked with guilt after a TV interview. Brie Larson is magnificent and masterful. Nothing less. But the movie belongs to little Jacob Tremblay – if there ever was a reason to have a Best Child Actor Award, Jacob in Room is it. He approaches a very difficult role with the ease that a five year old would approach a Lego challenge. He’s natural, he’s adorable, he’s sensitive, he’s lovable, and he’s a true heartbreaker. He’s not precocious, he’s not mature, and he’s….simply a sweet child whose acting chops will crack your tear glands again and again.

Brie, Jacob - theres life outside the Room
Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay: there’s life outside Room

Room is a winner, even as it is a tough watch. It’s harrowing, yet full of hope. It’s a beautiful look at the strong, triumphant bond between a mother and her son, and it’s a showcase of how closure comes in various forms. For some, it’s simply moving on. For Jack, it’s one final visit to Room. That final scene is as symphonic as is Stephen Rennicks’ beautiful score for that scene. And amidst that quiet moment, as you try and get a grip on yourself, Room also makes you realize that it’s all too tempting to get back into the comfortable claustrophobia of your personal Room, rather than face the unrelenting world outside; and that love sometimes, is the only answer.

Watch the trailer of Room here:

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