Sometimes strict limitations are exactly what a filmmaker needs to develop original work. The finest Westerns, for example, manage to extract high art from horses, cowboys and the lonesome prairie despite the seemingly impossible confines of the genre. For Room, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson had to contend with a limitation of another kind entirely — the story's 10-foot-by-10-foot living space, in which a woman and her 5-year-old son are held captive and completely cut off from the world. Abrahamson rises to the occasion and makes an asset of the claustrophobic room through minutely detailed set design and carefully composed shots. The film runs into trouble in its second half when it leaves the space and ventures outside.
It's a thriller, a character study and a psychological drama, but Room transcends those descriptors when it illuminates a simple but resonant theme: how a child — along with everyone else — makes sense of the world. The movie may haunt you for days.
Room's screenplay was adapted by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue from her best-selling and award-winning novel of the same name. But the transition wasn't as easy to pull off as it may sound. Donoghue's novel is told entirely from the perspective of 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has never been outside the room. The screenplay resists the endless voiceovers that would have been required to maintain that approach, opting instead for an observant two-character portrait of a closed world driven mostly by imagination. Room shows how one might raise a child without benefit of a village.
Like the novel, the film starts on Jack's fifth birthday, which means we are spared the details of Ma's (Brie Larson) abduction and sexual enslavement by a stranger when she was 17. Built into a storage shed in an anonymous suburban backyard, the room is a magical kingdom for Jack, who has some understanding of a two-dimensional outside world thanks to the television supplied by his captor, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). In one of the year's most unforgettable scenes, Ma tries to explain the difference between TV and "real" to a boy who's had little firsthand experience with the latter.
Making moments like that possible are the film's two indelible performances. At 26, Larson quietly made a name for herself in supporting roles in movies including 21 Jump Street before earning the lead in indie hit Short Term 12. Room has made her a star and inspired talk of major awards for her moving work. Tremblay was 8 years old when he shot Room and manages a natural, utterly believable performance. A campaign is already underway to bring Tremblay an Oscar nomination in the relatively winnable (but less-than-appropriate) Best Supporting Actor category. He deserves a nomination in spades.
It's hard not to admire Room for examining the bonds that exist between parents and children and spotlighting how much influence a parent can have on the development of a healthy human being. This is not the stuff of which box-office dreams are made, but makes a powerful film. Just be sure to avoid watching Room's trailer; it gives away far too much of the story.