In 'Room,' a Mom Creates an Entire World in the Confines of Four Walls

In the first part of the film, a horrific situation builds some gripping allegories, but these later dissolve into a standard family drama.

There’s a paradox at the heart of “Room,” so my response to the film is mixed, too. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, an Irish filmmaker, and adapted for the screen by Emma Donoghue (from her novel of the same name), “Room” tells a fictional story. It’s about a mother and her son who are held captive in a small room in a shed. The film’s protagonist (Brie Larson), who’s known only as “Ma,” was kidnapped when she was 17 by a man whom she calls “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers). The movie takes up the story seven years later, on the fifth birthday of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the long haired boy to whom she gave birth in the enclosed space.

The terror that pervades the situation in which mother and son exist is present in the film, but she represses it for the benefit of her son. The film does the same, a wise decision on Abrahamson’s part. (In his previous film, “Frank,” he gave the star, Michael Fassbender, the head of a doll.) For the good of her son, his mother preserves her mental stability. The only reality he knows is the room in which he was born and has lived ever since; he has no understanding that a reality exists outside the room. For him, the slice of sky that is visible through the room’s small skylight is the only bit of sky that exists. What he sees on the screen of the shimmering television his father deigned to install in the room, including the people who appear on it, seems to him as imaginary as the characters who inhabit the stories his mother reads to him. They do not indicate a reality that exists outside the room; on the contrary, they attest to the fact that the room is the only reality there is.

I used the word “understanding” to describe Jack’s relationship to the world he lives in, but of course for a boy of five, this is not a conscious process. In the first part of the film, Abrahamson succeeds in representing the mode by which reality is absorbed in Jack’s consciousness. This process is supported by his mother, who turns every item in the shabby room in which the two are held captive, every ray of light that penetrates it, into a magical element in the only world whose existence Jack is aware of. The power of the first part of the film comes from Abrahamson’s ability to transform the situation into a springboard for the allegories spawned by the feeling of a horror story – the tale of a mother and son imprisoned by a man presented as a threatening ogre.

One allegory deals with the nourishing relationship, supportive and educational, of mother and son. The second allegory, which aspires to infuse the first part of the film with philosophical heft, is concerned with the essence and meaning of reality and the possibility of proving its existence. The director’s achievement, at least in the first part, derives from his success in intimating the existence of the plot’s allegorical and philosophical overtones without weighing down the film.

Time for truth

In this image released by A24 Films, Brie Larson, right, and Jacob Tremblay appear in a scene from 'Room.'
George Kraychyk / A24 Films via AP

When Jack turns five, his mother decides that it’s time to tell him the truth about their circumstances. Until now, Jack has taken these conditions for granted, even if they included elements that disturbed him without his understanding them, such as Old Nick coming to the room every night and getting into bed with his mother while he is made to hide in a closet.

The action of the film and Donoghue’s script vividly convey Jack’s difficulty in understanding the truth his mother reveals to him. The scenes in which the mother tries to explain to her young son what happened are among the best in “Room.” Previous attempts to escape failed, and now, on her son’s fifth birthday, she decides to try again. Determined to succeed this time, she imposes the implementation of the mission on her son. His difficulty in grasping exactly what she wants from him, and why, also generate well-done, precise scenes.

The scene in which mother and son break out of their prison is filled with tension; after that, the thrust that powered the film until then dissolves. Abrahamson could have broadened the allegorical base by showing how the existence and meaning of a reality and a world external to those Jack had known previously are revealed through the eyes of a five-year-old boy. In that case, “Room” might occupy a place of honor in the list of films about childhood and the way children apprehend the reality around them. Instead, the film morphs into a fairly routine family melodrama, which focuses more on Jack’s mother, who has a harder time adjusting to the new reality after her long years of suffering abuse in captivity, than on Jack.

New characters now enter the story, but none of them possess the depth that was accorded Jack and his mother in the first part of the film. Chief among them is Jack’s grandmother (Joan Allen), who in the years that passed since her daughter was kidnapped divorced her husband (William H. Macy), whose response to his daughter’s return is cold and highly bizarre. Is he blaming her for being kidnapped and for wrecking his marriage? We’ll never know. The grandmother now has a new partner (Tom McCamus). Her persona is designed to stir ambivalent feelings in the viewer and her motherliness is supposed to contradict to a certain extent her daughter’s total commitment to her son. However, the script and the storyline do not provide a sufficient foundation for the creation of that ambivalence (thus wasting Joan Allen’s proven talent).

The response of each of these characters to the return of the mother with a son to whom she gave birth during her captivity could form the basis for a good drama. One theme would be the reunification of a family that fell apart and the ensuing difficulties and conflicting feelings, such as the need to readjust to the existence of a daughter whom everyone had thought was gone forever. A second theme could deal with the ability to accept a grandchild whose existence was previously unknown and the circumstances of whose birth might work against his acceptance, together with the need to cope with the guilt feelings that unavoidably accompany an event of this kind, in which those who remained behind went on with their lives. However, the film addresses these issues with formulaic superficiality, as it also does Jack’s quick adjustment to the new reality he discovers. His character, so vital in the first part of the film, is marginalized. This leaves a large vacuum and turns “Room” into a melodrama of family confrontation and rehabilitation of the sort we are too familiar with.

Thus the film, which possessed heft and forcefulness when it was set wholly in the room in which mother and son were held captive, is diminished precisely when it concerns itself with the reality outside the room. Hence its paradoxical character and the mixed response it stirs.

Still, “Room” is worth seeing because of its first part and because of the fine work done by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. The second part offers them far fewer opportunities to display their talents. The feeling the viewer gets in the first part of the film is that one of its qualities is the restrained and unsensational handling of a story in which sensationalism is seemingly inherent. That quality is sustained until midway through the film, at which point restraint gives way to banality, with disappointing results.

Room Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; written by Emma Donoghue; with Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus.