Film and TV

Room's Story Is Taken From the Tabloids but Stripped of Sensationalism

Lenny Abrahamson’s shattering drama Room borrows its fictional plot from the tabloids and strips it of sensationalism. Seven years ago, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) snatched seventeen-year-old Joy (Brie Larson) and stashed her in his backyard shed. Two years later, she bore their son. The door stayed locked.

Now five, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has never left their ten-by-ten cell. He’s not even aware he’s in a cell. To keep Jack calm, his mom convinces him that the world on TV is make-believe. All dogs are fake, the ocean is fake, the other people are just “made of colors.” Their room — or, as he calls it, “Room,” the same way we say “America” or “Earth” — is the only reality.

The twist is, it’s not that bad to Jack. Like a goldfish in a bowl, or the explorer who’s certain the world is flat, his curiosity fits his box. He’s surrounded by the splendors of Room: a flushing toilet, a melted plastic spoon, and, on a momentous day, a mouse. When Jack wakes up, he says hello to every item — “Good morning, lamp,” “Good morning, plant,” “Good morning, sink” — with the exuberance of Pee-wee greeting his magic chair.

Tremblay, an elf with an uncombed burst of hair, is so compelling that we can see Room through his eyes. But then Abrahamson pans over to Larson for a reality check. She keeps smiling — in a space this small, she has no privacy in which to sob. And then Jack looks away, and her face goes slack. Larson, a gifted actress with the solidity of a frontiersman, silently telegraphs her loss. In flashes, she even lets slip her annoyance that Jack is so damned chipper.


In frank terms, Room is a story about rape. Without it, Jack wouldn’t exist. Yet Abrahamson loathes the salacious. He turns the camera away when Old Nick enters the shed for his nightly jollies, focusing instead on Jack, tucked out of sight in a wardrobe, obliviously playing with his toys. He’s not interested in voyeurism, or voyeurism disguised as tragedy, which is how most women-in-peril flicks play out. Instead, Abrahamson, who last directed the excellent tragicomedy Frank, is fascinated by happiness and hope: how Jack can see joy in this dungeon, and how Joy can dream of freedom when her son can’t comprehend that there’s anywhere else to go.

Even if Jack were to make it outside, the shock of real dogs, real oceans, real people could break him. Jack expects to live his whole life in Room. But when Joy realizes that her son has begun to think of their captor as a god, she’s forced to make a choice: keep sheltering her son, or tell him the grim truth so that he can help them escape.

(Readers wary of story spoilers should skip the next two paragraphs.)

Abrahamson so convincingly walls us inside Room that it’s a jolt when the camera goes outside. After adjusting to the gray and filth, the blinding sun feels like a slap. Jack doesn’t have the vocabulary for his new, strange world. The first time he hears a knock on a door, he bleats, “Ma, the door is ticking!” Cinematographer Danny Cohen explains his confusion visually: a close-up of his feet testing unfamiliar tile, eyes overwhelmed and numbed by a traffic jam on the highway.


We know the frenzy that comes next: the headlines, the paparazzi, the soft-focus prime-time interview. Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard have taught us the drill. Abrahamson doesn’t indict the media for its interest or exploitation. After all, his audience in the theater is fascinated, too. But the real story, insists novelist Emma Donoghue, who also adapted her novel for the script, lies in the small details of how these two adjust. For Joy, the motherhood in which she found a reason to live is now, regardless of how much she loves Jack, a reminder of her pain.
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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.