I have to admit to you, dear readers, I’ve been avoiding seeing Room. I have fallen into numerous wiki-loops reading accounts of long-term kidnappings and I was frightened that a screen version would be too awful to bear. I was legitimately concerned I would leave the theater a shell of the person I once was. However, to my surprise, I left feeling disappointed that my soul did not feel destroyed. I left wishing the film did not feel so benign while dealing with content that feels so severe. Room is too safe. It tries to tell a harrowing story with a lighthearted twist. It does not want to travel to the dark, ugly places a story like this has to go.
Room tells the story of Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother Joy Newsome (Brie Larson). Kidnapped by a man only known by the moniker Old Nick, Joy has been captive for seven years. While in captivity she gives birth to Jack, who only understands the world through room, the tiny garden shed he and his mother have lived in since his birth. The two captives bond together in a plan to finally escape room and reunite with Joy’s family and the outside world.
The film may feel lighthearted because it is told through the eyes of the child, Jack and not the mother, Joy. Visually, Room tells this story well. Director Lenny Abrahamson creates dynamic images such as seeing Old Nick, the abuser, through slits in a wardrobe where Jack is hiding, and it is riveting watching Jack peer through the rug he is rolled up in during an escape attempt. These moments are well executed and encapsulate the naïve perspective of a child, but this point of view is a distraction from Brie Larson’s incredible Golden Globe-winning turn as Joy Newsome. Joy’s journey of being kidnapped by Old Nick, held captive for seven years, having his child through rape, and her eventual escape could not be fully explored through Jack’s eyes despite Jacob Tremblay’s best attempt. Joy’s journey is on the periphery, yet is the one place I desperately wanted the film to go.
Adaptations of books can always be difficult to translate onto the screen and it seems like acclaimed novelist Emma Donoghue ran into this setback while developing the screenplay for Room. Jack seems to adjust well to the outside world, while it’s Joy who suffers the trauma in much more complex ways. However, Joy is not given enough screen time to explore her character’s journey, and the audience is also not given enough time with Brie Larson’s stellar performance. Tremblay is an incredible child actor but this was ultimately Joy Newsome’s story. The child’s POV should have been abandoned for Joy’s much more interesting narrative arc.
The film refuses to go deep into the trenches of what happened to this young woman and her son. There are incredibly interesting moments of conflict such as William H. Macy, as Joy’s father, refusing to look at his Grandson Jack because he knows he was created from abuse, and the moment when Jack innocently explains the abuse Joy suffered to his Grandmother. But these moments end abruptly without really acknowledging or dealing with the conflict. Macy never returns to the film after the aforementioned scene, which feels like a complete waste of a character. Jack’s grandmother never probes any further about the issue and does not emote well enough to extract anything out of this scene. It’s strictly passive. These are missed opportunities to delve deep and lean into the uncomfortable feelings surrounding Joy’s abuse.
Pacing is also an issue. We spend very little time actually in room, and the film feels rocky as it races toward the resolution of Joy and Jack’s escape and reunion with Joy’s family, leaving Old Nick and room in its dust. The film rushes through the abuse and trauma and spends the second and third act in the denouement. It doesn’t build up to a strong crescendo of the escape. It leaves room too early and spends too much time with Joy’s family – who do not add value. If this plot was going to work, there needed to be a lot more emphasis on Jacob and Joy failing to adjust to the outside world and their familial conflicts because of this. Though Joy does struggle immensely, it is too much on the periphery while the main focus is on Jack, who seems to deal with the transition quite well. Room is a much more interesting and upsetting space than the characters’ transition to the outside world and I was left longing to explore its constrictions and more of the world the two main characters created in captivity.
This film is a difficult one. I so desperately want to champion its significance, its message, yet it tiptoed around the subject of abuse and kidnapping. Room was trying to be bold, but was too afraid to really say anything. Though it did have incredibly strong performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, the film does not conjure in me any strong emotions. With the subject matter being as urgent and important as it is, the emotion I am left with is frustration – frustration that I could not extract anything meaningful out of this safe, safe film.