Angel-faced five-year old Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has never had his hair cut, lives a rich, varied and seemingly unlimited life with his mother Ma (Brie Larson), who used to be called Joy, in Room – a fortified shed sometimes visited by Old Nick (Sean Bridger), who abducted Joy as a teenager and keeps her imprisoned as a sex slave. Adapted by Emma Donoghoe from her own novel and directed by Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Frank), this is an unusual riff on the captivity narrative. Inspired by appalling true crimes, this takes a fresh approach by telling the story from the viewpoint of a child who has never known freedom. Ma has protected Jack so well he doesn’t even understand the concept of imprisonment.
The first half of the film is a miracle of suggestion, with astonishingly present performances from young Tremblay and Larson as the loving, battling son and mother who are (obviously) never out of each other’s company. Art direction is used for storytelling – the repurposed bits of packaging used to decorate the soundproofed walls, the open toilet tank (because Joy once tried to bludgeon Old Nick with the lid) in which homemade toy boats float, the ill-tuned TV set and discussions of what’s real and what’s just on TV (‘Dora’s only a drawing’), the skylight that shows the weather. The dull ritual of abuse takes place out of Jack’s sight but not earshot, and the abductor is banal evil personified, whining about the costs of keeping the power on and his captives fed now he’s been laid off. Old Nick’s capricious, barbed generosity extends to giving the boy a remote-controlled toy car which makes a noise designed to irritate any adult within earshot. Ma tells stories to Jack as a way of teaching and entertaining him. Now he’s five, she changes what she’s told him about their situation as part of a long-term plan to escape – early on, she recounts the story of the Count of Monte Cristo, and her grand scheme is a modification of Edmond Dantes’ break from the Chateau d’Yf.
After a brilliantly-staged escape which requires Jack to act intelligently while overwhelmed by the unimaginable largeness of the world (an ordinary Ohio suburb), a second act deals with how Jack adjusts to new circumstances. In an effective what-happens-after-the-happy-ending drama, Joy istaken aback to find her parents divorced and her father (William H. Macy) unable to see her son as anything other than the child of a rapist monster. She is also latently furious that her mother (Joan Allen) raised her to be so nice she fell into Old Nick’s trap when he asked her to help with his sick dog (Jack later also has an imaginary dog) – a negative inspiration to the way she has of necessity raised her own son to escape from her as much as from Old Nick. Tremblay, after a scattering of kid actor credits in the likes of The Smurfs, is astonishingly good in a taxing role. Jack, like any five-year-old, can be dogmatic, fanatical, tantrum-prone and foolish and doesn’t even know he lives in a world where all these things are dangerous for him and his mother … but he also has a sense of wonder and has made Room bearable for Joy by seeing it as a magical place where each fitting has character and purpose (‘toilet’s the best at taking away poo’).