In Room, five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) describes the very small world that he and his mother share. It is easy to give too much away, so I’ll start by saying his story could be considered a metaphor for the prisons we all live in, from incapacitating pain to immobilizing anxiety. It is also about how wrenching and wondrous it is to have one’s eyes opened to the wide world. Though at times powerful, Room ultimately falters because it comes from a hypothetical rather than visceral place.
Too vague? Here is a little more detail: Jack’s mother Joy (Brie Larson) has been held captive in a shed for seven years. Extreme isolation and daily sexual abuse drain her, but she creates a home of sorts for her son, who was fathered by her captor. Jack has never left Room, as he calls it, and is unaware of the outside world’s existence. Joy raises him with remarkable patience and creativity, only occasionally lapsing into anger or despair in his presence.
Further spoilers follow: after a daring if improbable escape, the two are rescued. Jack’s shock at discovering a new life is the film’s strongest moment, and the second half of Room shows Jack’s emergence into the world as well as Joy’s struggles with returning to a form of normalcy. Jack must somehow adjust to this second birth and Joy to life after seven lost years.
Emma Donaghue adapted the script from her book, which I haven’t read, but I am familiar with director Lenny Abrahamson’s wonderful Frank (2014), a comedy that manages to examine mental illness, creativity, and fame. Room shares some of that film’s whimsy in spite of its content. Because the harrowing subject is from Jack’s innocent perspective, the tone is less heartbreaking than hopeful. Stephen Rennicks’s soundtrack suggests a magical tale of discovery and has moments of inspiration, but its sweeping strings and piano music can be cloying and too sentimental in the context of such a stark situation.
Inspired by the Josef Fritzl case in Austria, alongside several other kidnapping cases, Donaghue also drew from her experiences as a mother. Her background in historical fiction prepared her for the research needed to tell such a narrative. She wanted to move away from the “saccharine and the judgmental” view of female victims and to shift focus from the victimizer to the survivors. This is a story of mother and child and how one can find freedom in limitations.
Donaghue penned this with memories of motherhood in mind, but she chose to tell it from the child’s perspective and indicated it would be too depressing and perhaps even salacious to write it from Joy’s view. On top of that, she cited John Fowles as already having written so well as both the young female prisoner and male kidnapper in his book The Collector (1963). Donaghue blessedly made a point to keep Joy’s kidnapper “Old Nick” at arm’s length so as not to give people like him any more attention than they already receive, though surely his figure would loom much more largely in the minds of his victims than he does in this film.
In his review, Ed Whitefield points out that drama is “not in a child’s lack of understanding but an adult’s fully cultivated, stark awareness of their situation and the likely horrors to come.” It is the tension between the knowing and the innocent perspectives that creates poignancy and even dread. Taika Waititi’s Boy (2010), for example, a very different movie about an exuberant eleven-year-old, mines humor and tragedy from the distance between the child’s fantastical view of his father and his negligent father’s actual virtue.
Jack’s disillusionment is not so acute. He has a difficult time relinquishing the fictions he believed about the world, but he is young and malleable. Still, it seems as though the film does not want to dwell on how painful this reawakening would actually be. Imagination is portrayed as a beautiful coping mechanism that allows Jack to thrive in Room. Other films such as Tideland (2005) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) also feature children who escape their hideous reality through their imaginations, but they demonstrate that, no matter how necessary, there is an ambiguous aspect to these fantasies. Some may never escape their dreams.
Though Jack can barely speak or process the overstimulation of life outside Room, in Room, he is emotionally and verbally ordinary. Even with the influence of a fuzzy television and a longsuffering mother like Joy, it is hard to believe that Jack would complain about not having candles on his birthday cake or bound with enthusiasm around his home, as any “normal” boy would. Jacob Tremblay is adorable and sometimes remarkable but occasionally obnoxious in his unrealistic precociousness.
Elisabeth, Fritzl’s daughter and victim, pulled out chunks of her hair while trapped in her basement. She and her children suffered severe physical and mental impairments. Children, even when raised in isolation, have a survival instinct that can be attuned to the pain of others. Jack is wary of Nick, and the second half of the film delves more into how Jack and his mother’s experiences have stunted them, especially Joy. Still, without more information about her experiences and thought processes in Room, Jack’s relative equanimity seems improbable.
As important as her character is, Joy’s voice is lacking. Joy, played so well by Larson, plays a crucial role in raising Jack and keeping the two of them alive until she can no longer cope, but we don’t know how she developed Jack’s educational regimen or got through her regular assaults. The focus is on Jack. A comically insensitive television interviewer doesn’t question why Elisabeth didn’t leave or fight back, questions many victims hear. The interviewer instead implies that Joy is an inadequate mother.
A doctor tells Joy that the most important thing she did is not escape or keep the two intact for all those years, but save Jack while he is “plastic.” It is his integration into the outside world that is most important, not his mother’s reintegration. Questions of motherhood hit Joy hardest. Her individuality and needs are addressed but from Jack’s point of view. If Joy is first and foremost a mother to Jack, we need to have her voice as a mother to balance Jack’s, if not instead of his.
The Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015) gives its heroine Kimmy, who was kidnapped and assaulted for years, like Joy, a voice. It takes a comedic bent, and does not attempt to be as realistic as Room. Australian horror film The Babadook (2014) examines the way a mother-son relationship can be imperiled by unresolved trauma. That mother is longsuffering and is not cooped up with him in a tiny prison, but she still feels suffocated by her child.
Room is memorable, disturbing, and, at times, thrilling. In spite of the story’s verisimilitude, Room betrays its origins as a novel rather than a memoir. Donaghue uses her imagination to depict Joy’s and Jack’s traumas, but, though full of accurate psychological details, it doesn’t quite ring true. Jack’s story is worth telling—a child is raised in a horrific environment by a resilient but imperfect mother, and the most difficult part of his existence is leaving all that he knows. However, tales like Jack’s and Joy’s are not allegories. They are living nightmares that have happened and still happen. The writer, director, and certainly the actors tell their story with sensitivity and invention, but a darker take is needed to make a story like this “inspirational.”