Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Runtime: 118 minutes
Rooting an entire movie in the perspective of a 5 year old is one hell of a risk, which is why director Lenny Abrahamson and his collaborators deserve countless hosannas. Last appearing with the oddball music dramedy Frank, Abrahamson has taken a gigantic leap forward with Room, working off of Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her own novel. Both a tense psychological drama and a moving mother/son, Room finds Abrahamson graduating to a whole new level as a director.
Like most kids, 5 year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) loves when his birthday rolls around. He eats cake, gets extra attention from his mom, and gets to feel like the center of the universe. But the center of Jack's universe is terrifyingly small. All of his life, Ma (Brie Larson) has told him that Room - a soundproofed shack with only a skylight for light - is the entire world. Outside of Room is space, and then beyond that is heaven. Dogs and cats and other people, the ones the pair see on their TV, don't really exist. Ma's behavior would sound disturbing and cult-ish were it not for the fact that her placement in Room was anything but voluntary. Her lessons about the worlds outside of Room may be lies, but they are lies told out of love, in order to keep the awful truth at bay. There isn't much in Room, but at least mother and son have each other while cramped inside their four walls.
Even with a first half set almost entirely in a single space, Abrahamson shows remarkable dexterity behind the camera. Working with cinematographer Danny Cohen, he turns Room into a visually dynamic space. The camera moves and swings, and at times captures space at angles that make everything appear much bigger. The Room may not be big to us (or to Ma), but it's literally the entire world to Jacob, and Abrahamson and Cohen do a striking job of conveying this notion. The grim reality remains at the fringes, but is only palpable when Ma is significantly present in a shot.
Young Mr. Tremblay is effortlessly believable in his role, neither grating nor overly coached. He never hits a false note, and Abrahamson ought to be commended for guiding the young actor through some tricky material. Having the film so strictly grounded in his mindset pays off in spades. Jack is allowed to be both our window into Room's world, while also functioning as a protagonist with agency. W.C. Fields is famously quoted as saying, "Never work with children or animals," but Tremblay makes a compelling case as evidence to the contrary.
Meanwhile, Larson adds another wrenching performance to her resume as Ma. She plays the character's complexities with great restraint, keeping one on edge as to what her next move will be. Ma loves Jack, but she's also an adult who has had her life irrevocably altered, even if a day comes when she can escape from Room. Despite a few disappearances during the story, Room is just as much about Ma's shattered psyche as it is about Jack's experiences with the world (both the one he knows, and beyond). Room is about emotional imprisonment, but it spends just as much time dealing with recovery from trauma, which is hardly an easy journey.
Despite the eventual appearance of the outside world, Room remains anchored in Tremblay and Larson's beautiful performances. Under Abrahamson's watch, their story never gets lost even as the scope of the narrative widens. Room puts the bonds of mother and child through the wringer, but always with tasteful distance. Abrahamson and Donoghue present some harsh realities and harsh questions, but their concern for their characters mirrors Ma's treatment Jack: sometimes it's abrasive, but it ultimately comes from a place of profoundly moving love that refuses to be shaken.