‘Room’ Reminds Us About the Beauty of Being Connected…to the Real World

In a weird way, Room reminds me a lot of The Matrix.  Well, no, there’s no bullet time, epic shootouts or leather-clad fashions inspired by S & M dungeons.  But just as Neo found out the world around him was an elaborate façade, that’s exactly what happens to five-year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), the child protagonist of Lenny Abrahamson’s harrowing film.  The primary difference, however, is that the digital walls that surrounded Neo’s consciousness were designed to suppress him, whereas the fallacy of Jack’s physical walls are invented to protect him.

Image: A24

Image: A24

When we first meet Jack, his sole orbit is within a place he knows only as “Room” – a tiny, locked shed with his young mother, Joy (Brie Larson in a mesmerizing performance), or simply “Ma” as Jack affectionately calls her.  In actuality, the story begins seven years prior when Joy was abducted by the mysterious captor she and her son refer to as “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers).  Yes, your math is correct and, sadly, Jack is the product of the constant sexual abuse Old Nick inflicts upon Joy.  Sadder still, Jack’s arrival didn’t put an end to this abuse.  So at night when Old Nick comes to “visit” Joy, Jack is told to stay in the wardrobe and not come out while he is there.  The whole dynamic has a kind of fairy tale-esque quality that is similar to many of the other fabricated constructs of Room.  However, one night Jack sneaks out and the episode results in a physical altercation between Joy and Old Nick.  As a cruel punishment, he then cuts off the heat.  This fateful occurrence leads Joy to hatch a daring, but risky escape plan that will put the lives of both – her and Jack – in the gravest kind of danger.  However, if they succeed, it could offer them a new life beyond the dreary confines of Room.  I don’t want to give too much away about what happens after that.  Simply put, I want you to have the same awesome, albeit sometimes saddening, experience I had.  

It’s interesting that Lenny Abrahamson, who helmed the charming 2014 comedy Frank, opted to tell another story with a similar theme in Room.  Both movies are about characters trapped in seemingly inescapable existences and then, through unexpected events, are hurled into new, life-changing circumstances in which they must quickly adapt.  Granted, Jack isn’t nearly as miserable as Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon, which is ironic because his situation is so much more restricted.  If anything, Jack is far from depressed and celebrates the mundane within Room.  For his birthday, baking the cake with Ma is an all-day activity – the cake isn’t just a component of a celebration the way it is for most kids – for Jack, it is the celebration entirely.  He doesn’t see a disease-harboring rodent scampering about and eating crumbs; he sees a household rat as a new friend.  However, both of these experiences are also accompanied with a tinge of sadness.  We know why the cake doesn’t have candles (and why Joy can’t ask for them) and we also know why she startles the rat away.  Even in his happiest moments, for Jack, these things always end with a gnawing frustration that we, the audience, know will only escalate as he gets older.  The imaginative fictions that Joy conjured to once protect Jack from the awful severity of their plight are like a magical potion steadily wearing off.      

It’s worth noting that Room is not a despairing, joyless affair.  Sure, there are some downright depressing moments, but for the most part the film is surprisingly upbeat and life-affirming, similar to how Abrahamson handled the mental illness victims in Frank.  Based on the work I have seen from him, that’s really one of his truest gifts as a director – he can get the audience to see things from the very specific viewpoint of his protagonist, almost with tunnel vision.  Just as we never truly see Jon as the band’s poison until the end of Frank, we see much of this film through Jack’s childlike gaze, filled with perpetual wonder and an eager yearning to understand the new world around him.  This allows for one of the film’s key turning points to blindside us.  It also makes it a bit more forgivable that two of the story’s arcs are left mostly unresolved.  I suppose that in a movie like this, characters are struggling to pick up the pieces of broken lives and, just as in real life situations such as that, there are bound to be a few shards permanently lost.  

Image: A24

Image: A24

Usually during the best movies we see, we don’t think about the outside world at all.  For me, the mark of something being truly great or special are those movies where I never think about the rent, look at my watch or take the outside world into any consideration – just me and the screen.  However, this is where Room differentiates itself.  This is a great film that makes you not just think about the outside world, but want to love it even more…appreciate it and take less of it for granted.  Room is a love letter to the real world that we sometimes forget about with our digital lifestyles and constant interconnectivity.  And there’s nothing didactic or any heavy-handed messages sharply directed toward the audience about it; rather, it’s done with simple, elegant nondescript moments transmitted through a combination of Abrahamson’s wonderful direction and an even more brilliant performance from Tremblay.    

Although there are some occasionally sorrowful moments in Room, this isn’t a sad movie; it’s more so about rejoicing and appreciating what’s oft-overlooked.  It’s a film about new beginnings, enduring and finding strength even in a strange, but beautiful world – the same one we are far too often prone to barricade ourselves from on our own volition.