I didn't see Room (2015) when it first hit the theaters because I knew it would be something of a downer (or worse) and I tend not to opt for those. But that, of course, is pretty short-sighted. My wife thought I should watch it even if just to see Brie Larson in her Oscar-winning role before I went to see her as a big-budget superhero in Captain Marvel (2019), so we watched Room on Netflix this week. And of course she was right -- this is a carefully thought out and crafted film that sticks in the mind afterward. Although it's fictional, sadly it's not all that fictional. We read in the news all the time about kidnapping and abduction of young women for sex-trade purposes or worse.
I'm not going to worry too much about "spoilers" in my review, coming 4 years after the fact -- the IMdB synopsis itself gives away the bare bones of the whole plot -- so I'll just go ahead with my reactions. Larson plays Joy Newsome ("Ma"), abducted on the street at age 17 by an unnamed predator (Sean Bridgers) who keeps her locked in his backyard shed as a sex slave (no other way to put it). 7 years later she now has a son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) who has no knowledge of the world outside their Room except for what appears on TV. The first half of the movie shows them in their tiny, gruelling world day by day. Joy takes advantage of a temporary power outage to concoct an escape, which beyond all hope actually works. The second half of the movie is their adjustment after re-entry to the world outside (or in Jack's case, first-time entry).
But no plot summary gets across the emotional impact and at-times surprising turns of the story. Though Jack is utterly bewildered at first by the reality of the larger world, as young children are very good at doing he adjusts, learns, adapts and accepts over the course of the next few weeks: meeting his grandparents, finally dressing and eating well, just being outside, making a neighborhood friend, delighting in the family dog. It's Joy who has much deeper trouble. After the Great Escape, dealing with the police and the doctors, and making the transition back to her own family home, things are not all rosy. She's unpredictably short-tempered; impatient; aimless; unhappy. She doesn't know what's wrong, experiences a physical breakdown. Shouldn't she be happy and fine? The obvious answer staring us in the face, of course, is that she's exhausted: flat-out, bone-deep exhausted, after 7 unrelenting years of captivity and five years looking out for her son every minute of every day -- protecting, feeding, training, teaching. Healing happens, but it takes far longer. This is a deeply sympathetic portrayal of a very ordinary person pushed far beyond ordinary limits, and Larson delivers every bit of it.
Which brings me to the stylistic part of the movie. Everyone here is an ordinary person and acts that way. When abducted, Joy was an average high-school girl with no more personal resources or courage than average, pushed into an impossible situation. She has no particular training in dealing with motherhood, or sexual predators, or isolation and deprivation. Jack is what he is -- a kid with a kid's typical mix of behavior that is variously affectionate, obedient, self-centered, kind, shy, peevish, frightened. Their captor ("Old Nick") is menacing but also banal -- a social loser who can't hold a job and has minimal competence. Joy's escape bears no resemblance to the kind of McGyver scheme that a normal action thriller hero would come up with; her plan is not really a very good one, is also extremely risky, but it is just bold enough to work. The police officers and doctors who find them and care for them are unspectacular in turn, but they are seen to do their jobs sympathetically and well. Finally, Joy's parents Nancy and Robert (played by major actors Joan Allen and William H. Macy, in strong supporting performances) are ordinary suburban dwellers who had been forced to presume their long-lost daughter was dead. In the intervening years they have separated, and Nancy has a new partner Leo (played very effectively indeed by Tom McCamus). Both Nancy and Leo turn out to be the strengths of their newly rebuilt family: Nancy takes over Jack when Joy cannot, and Leo succeeds in making friends with him while Robert finds that he cannot.
The media feeding frenzy that usually accompanies sensational news stories like this "Woman Held Captive for Seven Years Escapes! News at 8.") is shown too, but not all that much time is spent on it. What little we get, though, does not cast reporters in a very good light. We see one very telling scene where Joy consents to do a TV interview, and the interviewer (Wendy Crewson) sideswipes her with appallingly self-righteous, judgmental questions about what she did with her son.
Lastly, a shout-out to young Jacob Tremblay. He was age 9 when making the film, playing a 5-year-old, and breathtakingly convincing at it. It never occurred to me while watching that he was that much older in reality. He's just as major a figure as Larson at carrying the movie and in certain sections has to effectively carry it alone. We know how Brie Larson's career has taken off (literally, in Captain Marvel!) but it's nice to see that Tremblay is beginning to make his mark as well in other features.
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