If ever there was a perfect illustration of how a film is less what it's about than how it is about that thing, "Room" is it. Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her best-selling 2010 novel, "Room" is a gripping and deeply emotional story that nevertheless revolves around a nightmarish scenario of victimization. Taking inspiration from similar stories we hear with alarming frequency in the news -- young women abducted and held captive for years by some man (and it's inevitably a man in these occurrences) -- "Room" is similar to "Spotlight" in the way it takes some horrifying themes and drains them of all sensationalism. Director Lenny Abrahamson ("Frank") shows a sensitivity to the material that, when combined with two astonishing lead performances, transforms potentially grim subject matter into an uplifting and life-affirming experience.
Joy (Brie Larson) is a young mother raising her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), while forcibly confined to living in a 10-by-10-foot shed. With little hope of freedom, Joy has chosen to tell Jack that there is no world outside of "room," and its walls are all that separates them from the nothingness of "outer space." Joy is a great mother to Jack, despite never given a choice as to whether she ever wanted to become one. Working with cinematographer Danny Cohen, Abrahamson gives us a unique sense of the space in these early scenes. Room feels warm and lived-in, but we never lose the feeling the claustrophobia the characters face.
The film begins on the morning of Jack's 5th birthday. Knowing no other life but the one inside room, Jack is still relatively content. Joy shields her son from the nightly visits by their captor (referred to only as Old Nick, and played by Sean Bridgers), who slinks in to deliver essentials and to use her body as he sees fit. Joy has made "room" into as safe and nurturing an environment as humanly possible considering the circumstances; in one heartrending and quietly horrifying scene, we see how she's even made screaming for help into a game for Jack. But in her eyes we can see the toll the years have taken, the daily struggle to not sink into despair.
Now Jack has finally reached the age when he begins to ask questions that Joy doesn't know how to answer. She knows that something has to give, and when an opportunity seems to present itself, she begins to formulate a plan that may help them escape. Though told mostly from Jack's point of view, Donoghue's deeply empathetic script also puts us in Joy's shoes, allowing us to understand her frustration when she snaps at her son -- for reasons both reasonable and unreasonable -- as anyone would when living under such constant stress.
If you wish to remain spoiler-free, you may wish to skip ahead to the next paragraph -- though if you've seen any of the film's far-too-revealing trailers, you already know a major turning point of the story. Joy and Jack do manage to get free, and the second half of the film is devoted to their struggles acclimating to living once again in the real world. Jack is confronted with an alien world he has no understanding of -- here Donoghue demonstrates a deep understanding of children and the unique psychology that allows for their understanding and processing the world around them. Meanwhile Joy reunites with her parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), and finds it impossible to slip back into her role as their child after so much time spent raising her own. Jack, whom Joy cares about and loves deeply, will on some level always be a permanent reminder of the trauma she went through. Even if she's found a way to look past that, it's clear that others around her can't -- her father refuses to even look at the boy.
"Room" wouldn't work nearly as well as it does without its two astonishing lead performances; the film is nothing if not beautifully acted. Jacob Tremblay is a wonder, demonstrating a subtlety well beyond his years. Larson is one of the most versatile performers of her age, she's been delivering great performances for years, but has somehow remained under the radar. Playing a character who's been through far too much hardship for her relatively short time on earth, Larson has been justifiably earning quite a bit of Oscar talk for her exceptional performance.
Lenny Abrahamson has a remarkable way with actors, and he's skillful in the way that he allows us to understand Joy's victimization, while never dwelling on it. The film's sometimes shattering power comes from the way in which it confronts the darkest aspects of humanity, but by focusing on the nurturing love between mother and son, what we're left with is ultimately a sense of hopefulness.