“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once wrote, pithily articulating our innate capacity for making sense out of the senseless. “Room,” a harrowing new film directed by Lenny Abrahamson, offers a slightly different take on Didion’s claim: we tell ourselves stories in order to survive. Stories buoy our hopes, pull us back from the precipice of despair, moor us to meaning. They don’t just make life comprehensible — they make it possible.
For the protagonists of “Room,” stories — especially fanciful ones — take on vital importance. They’re both a means of broadening the bounds of the imagination and of obscuring horrific truths, each equally necessary in the environment of the movie. Trapped in a claustrophobic shed for the past seven years by her kidnapper and frequent rapist, whom she calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), Ma (Brie Larson) has reared her five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), on a steady diet of maternal love and healthy doses of fantasy — the biggest fantasy being that the world begins and ends within the tight confines of Room, Jack’s affectionate name for the only home he’s ever known. He has a name for everything else in Room, too — lamp is Lamp, bed Bed, sink Sink, and so on. Here, among his coterie of inanimate companions, Jack’s imagination is given free rein: it gallops over the light that plays on the walls, along the dusty floor and up through Skylight into the great, unfathomable beyond. He has everything a kid could ask for — at least, as far as he knows.
Contrast his perception of Room with his mother’s, and you begin to get a sense of the thorny dynamics at play in this film. Ma relies on Jack’s wide-eyed naiveté, even cultivates it, but she also needs to narrow the gulf of understanding it has opened up between them if she ever wants to escape this hell. Jack sees Room as a physical manifestation of the warmth Ma envelops him in, so the idea of leaving Room becomes equated in his mind with losing her. Casting his silhouette over both of them is their captor, Old Nick, whose tyrannical presence is always felt, even when he himself is not there. Ma tries to keep Jack shielded from him by stowing her son away in a wardrobe before Nick shows up, but Jack’s natural curiosity gets the better of him. We see the kind of prevarications Ma has to perform to keep Jack in the dark, all while stifling an urge to scream.
Larson is a revelation. Ma’s quiet resilience in the face of unspeakable horror, the expressiveness she achieves with her dull eyes, the vulnerable tenderness with which she treats Jack — all of it coalesces into an Oscar-worthy performance. Tremblay doesn’t shrink from the challenge either. His Jack avoids sainthood, and he instead delivers a more nuanced portrayal of a young boy asked to shoulder the weight of the world and all the petulance, terror and bewilderment that goes along with that burden.
“Room” was adapted from a highly acclaimed 2010 novel of the same title. Authored by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the movie’s screenplay), the book tells the story from Jack’s perspective, giving the narrative a certain quality of untarnished innocence. The viewer still sees plenty through Jack’s eyes throughout the film, but otherwise Donoghue wisely abandons that model in her script, sprinkling in a few of Jack’s internal monologues in voiceover without letting them draw focus away from the subterranean plates of drama that grind beneath Ma, Jack and Room. Abrahamson, for his part, mostly keeps his camera tight on the two leads, creating a closeness that teeters precariously between intimacy and suffocation. But he also allows enough room for Jack’s expansive reveries, which have an airy quality that widens the space. Through the alchemy of shifting angles and often abrupt cuts, Room transforms from a prison into a living, breathing organism, as much the product of Jack’s fertile imagination as it is a real, solid thing.
It might come as a relief to some that only half the film takes place within Room. Without giving too much away, the second half changes settings and adds some new characters into the mix but still retains its essential dramatic elements. That said, the narrative also loses some of its urgency and begins to meander. It never strays too far from Room, however, where the story returns at the end of the film.
Survival may seem like a tall order for Ma and Jack for much of the movie, but ultimately their — and the viewers’ — faith in the redemptive power of story is rewarded.
“Room” went into limited release on Oct. 16 and will open nationwide on Nov. 6.