This movie had one hell of a harrowing premise: a young woman is imprisoned in a tiny garden shed for seven years, together with her five-year-old son Jack born as a result of her captor’s visits. In order to create some kind of semblance of normality for the boy, she pretends that the 10 square metres they’re trapped in is in fact the entire world, that beyond the walls and the roof window there’s nothing but outer space, that the humans he sees on TV are make-believe.
Though it’s clear that she can barely keep it together, Jack’s Ma nevertheless manages to sustain a remarkably innocent and even happy environment for him made up of ritual and familiarity, stories and games and birthday cakes, even amidst the horror of continuing visits by Old Nick, their jailer, during which Jack is told to sleep in the wardrobe. It’s not a huge spoiler to say that eventually Ma hatches an escape plan, which is as tense and suspenseful as any thriller (and very clever too!), and the second half of the film becomes about the mother and son’s adjustment to the world beyond the Room.
The intense, intimate, claustrophobic setup of the first half is so striking and unique that it’s probably inevitable that the rest of the film suffers in comparison, though on the other hand, it’s admirable that the movie explores beyond the mother and son’s escape, which in most other films probably would have been the natural happy ending. Being out in the real world, with their horizons suddenly expanded, is not an easy deliverance for both of them, or Ma’s parents (William H. Macy and Joan Allen, who was great to see onscreen again after what feels like forever). Ma in particular takes it hard after being confronted with a question that’s both shockingly cruel and has a grain of truth in it that I couldn’t deny even though I was itching to slap the character who asked it.
The bond between the mother and the child is the heart of the movie and I’ve rarely seen it portrayed so tenderly, with fantastic performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay who is simply astonishing as Jack. Child actors can come off as annoyingly precocious, wooden and cutesy sometimes, but his was one of the most touching and naturalistic child performances I’ve seen, it’s as if he’s not acting at all. Jack’s innocence and wonder at the outside world goes a long way to make this grim story feel ultimately uplifting and hopeful. I really look forward to reading the book the movie was based on.