Playing well with others: ‘Room’ holds an impressive allegory for life outside the self


FilmScene — (Last Screening) Thursday, Dec. 10 at 8 p.m.

There is nothing beyond Room. That’s what Jack (Jacob Tremblay), one of the protagonists of Room, believes. It’s what his mother (Brie Larson) has taught him over the five years of his life held captive, along with his mother, by a man they call Old Nick. That belief breaks shortly after the movie begins, when the mother, Joy, reveals to her son that the sunlight, the leaf on the skylight, even the people on television are actually real. What’s beyond Room is the entire world.

Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and written by Emma Donoghue, is based on the 2010 book, also by Donoghue. If you haven’t read the book, then, I suspect, the unfast, deliberate pacing of the movie may bring out the tension in the plot. But if you have read the book, the film feels downright slow, with little of the anxiety that propels the book.

Which isn’t to say the movie lacks anxiety — there’s plenty. The tension in the film — especially at the turning point, when the camera first moves outside of Room — is, at times, almost unbearable. It continues after the imprisoned pair escapes, deep into the second, longer part of the movie in the outside world, in which the anxiety comes not from the horror of the crime but from the horror of how the crime continues.

As it continues, so too does the central allegory of the movie: Growing up, with the protagonists learning to live with an independence that loosens the bond between them. That allegory stays powerful rather than saccharine thanks to the complexities of the central characters, who propel the narrative with the development of their personalities and interactions post-Room. (The score, on the other hand, threatens to undo emotionally charged moments with maudlin orchestral swells.)

As we see day-to-day life develop outside of Room — Jack plays with legos, Joy fights with her parents, gives a television interview — it’s impossible not to make comparisons to the bizarre quotidian of life inside Room: In the 11-by-11 space in which they’re confined, Jack and Joy run, make toys out of eggshells, shiver in cut-off-electricity cold and get separated at night when Old Nick comes in to rape Joy while Jack hides in a wardrobe. The whole time, the bond between mother and son seems not only believable, but almost normal, like that of a mother and son in the real, unimprisoned world. That’s testament to both the story itself and the extraordinary complexity with which Joy and Jack are played.

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