Room A Film by Lenny Abrahamson
“Though the hut is small it includes the entire world.”
–Sekito Kosan. Song of the Grass Roof Hut
The background to the movie Room is a horrific crime: a man kidnaps a seventeen year old girl, puts her in a storage shed in his back yard, and keeps her there for seven years, feeding her minimally and periodically raping her. After two years she has a son, and raises him in the shed, shielding him from her captor and trying to shield her child from what the man—referred to by the two of them as Old Nick—does to her. Halfway through the movie the mother and child escape, and the second half is about their recovery.
Remarkably, the movie isn’t about the crime. It isn’t about the criminal, and doesn’t spend a moment asking why someone would want to do such a thing. The first half concerns the experience of living in the shed, seen from the viewpoint of the five-year-old boy, whose name is Jack (Jacob Tremblay). In the second half he emerges and discovers a larger world.
I have on many occasions gone back to the street where I spent my first five years. I thought the place was vast at the time. My best friend lived across the street, in a house catty corner to mine, as we used to say (I have no idea where that expression comes from). Down the street lived an old lady who never came out of her house. We visited her once, and she served me some kind of cheese cracker that came out of a can and that I didn’t like. Periodically the neighborhood bully, an older guy named Kevin Dwyer, showed up; he had a limp from having had polio, and I assumed that experience had made him mean. That limp made him oddly sinister, like the one-legged guy in Treasure Island. As soon as I saw his strange gait come around the corner my heart pounded with fear. At the end of the street was a Catholic School, behind which was a church. When I was five we moved to another street, which seemed a huge distance away; I wondered how I would ever get along in the new place. It’s actually three blocks away. We barely moved at all.
Jack’s world is smaller than that, but as Manola Dargis points out in the review that made me want to see the movie in the first place, it doesn’t seem that way. It’s vast, as vast as that little street I lived on when I was a kid. It’s the whole world. He and his mother eat meals there, they exercise, they bathe together, they talk, they watch television, they laugh and have arguments and scream and cry. Their only view on the outside world is a skylight on a rather high ceiling. The very thought of living in such a place seems terrifying as I sit here and think about it. But it doesn’t seem that way in the film. The space seems ample.
And this mother and child have—to say the very least—each other. After they get out, when the woman Jack calls only Ma (Brie Larson), is being interviewed by a television reporter, the reporter asks the rather moronic question of whether she had ever thought of asking her captor to abandon the child at a hospital somewhere, so Jack could have a “normal” childhood. The young woman seems bewildered by the question. “But he had . . . me,” she says.
As I watch mothers go by my window day after day, pushing their children in baby carriages and jabbering on cell phones, I often wonder to what extent those children have a mother. Jack is an amazing child, played brilliantly by Jacob Tremblay, and the reason he’s amazing is that he’s had his mother’s full attention. When I studied childhood development in an education course, the one thing that was most important seemed to be that the parent pay attention to the young child, that the child look up and see someone looking back. Ma is a remarkable mother, but the situation is remarkable too.
The dialogue is also remarkable, written by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the novel on which the film is based. The film is narrated by voiceovers by Jack, who has a wild imagination and a deep understanding of his weird situation; the IMDb website includes some lines from the film, which give the flavor of Jack’s narration: ‘Once upon a time, before I came, you cried and cried and watched TV all day, until you were a zombie. But then I zoomed down from Heaven, through skylight, into Room. And I was kicking you from the inside. Boom boom! And then I shot out onto Rug with my eyes wide open, and you cut the cord and said, “Hello Jack!”’ It sounds precocious on the page as you read it, and a tad precious, but doesn’t seem that way in the film. Jack is our narrator, and we accept him, and off we go.
It would be wrong to say anything about how Jack and Ma get out of the shed, because that whole plot is one of the most interesting and suspenseful aspects of the film, and of course doesn’t go as planned. Dargis thinks the second half of the movie is a mess, but I don’t agree at all. I agree that the first half is magical, the second half more difficult, but what is it like for a young woman who was in captivity for seven years to realize that she’s just missed out on her young adulthood, while her friends moved along? And what is it for a child to discover that there aren’t just three people in the world, and one single room, but there are all kinds of things; as Jack himself says, “The world’s like all TV planets on at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen. There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops.”
The situation is weird, to be sure. Jack discovers a larger world all in one fell swoop. But that’s the same process that every child goes through more gradually as he discovers that that little world of his childhood is only a small patch of the whole. And if there are difficulties in discovering that world, things you discover that you’d rather not, things that happen that make it all even more difficult, that’s the way it is for everybody. Jack is not like us, but he also is like us.
I don’t know what I expected from this movie, exactly, but what I got was a lot different. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. This is one of those movies that you hear about and think, I don’t want to see that. But you’re making a mistake. This is a brilliant movie about growing up in the world. It just sees the world initially through a very small lens.
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