Looking for a Throwback Thursday in conjunction with Brie Larson’s “Captain Marvel,” I perused her IMDB credits to note the films I’d already seen. I was surprised to find it was about a half-dozen films. To me, Larson is an actress who doesn’t pop off the screen but gives solid, workhorse turns in whatever she’s in. “Room” (2015), though, stands out because she’s asked to carry the film along with young Jacob Tremblay as her son; this is also the role where Academy Awards voters noticed her, thus leading to the bizarre situation at this year’s show where Larson is introduced as an Oscar winner and Samuel L. Jackson as a mere nominee.
While Larson is good, “Room” is a great film beyond her performance. We know her character as “Ma,” because we’re asked to see the events through the eyes of Jack (Tremblay), who is celebrating his fifth birthday in Room. We know it as the shed where Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) has been holding “Ma” – actually named Joy – captive for seven years. But Jack has no perspective beyond Room itself. Through Tremblay’s performance and Ma’s choices of what to tell him and what to hold back, “Room” is an effective portrayal of how a kid learns about the world.
A child’s mind will fill the expanse it’s given, Emma Donoghue’s screenplay posits, and it operates on a percentage basis rather than on rote size. Room is Jack’s whole world, and therefore it is big. We’ve all experienced that phenomenon of returning to a favorite childhood place years later and noticing it seems smaller. Without perspective, it’s hard to understand things, and for both Ma and Jack it’s frustrating as she tries to get him to grasp the idea of what’s outside Room. At first she tells him home-grown fairy tales, but when he turns 5, she decides he’s big enough to learn about reality.
“Room” is ultimately in a subgenre with the likes of “10 Cloverfield Lane” and “Cast Away” wherein we spend so much time in one tiny slice of the world that 1) the idea of what’s beyond it becomes a fascinating mystery, and 2) once we see what’s beyond, we gain a new appreciation for the beauty of the world.
The stakes are high here, but director Lenny Abrahamson stages a lot of the drama with a delicate touch, so when we do get to the pivotal moment, it’s gripping.
Jack is the centerpiece of the narrative-shifting sequence, but a viewer’s sympathies stay with the off-screen Ma, who has resolved that putting her son in danger is the best hope for both of them to escape. (I’m somewhat surprised that “Room” chooses to stay with the family at this point, relegating the “why” of their captivity and the “who” of their captor to the background. It’s mildly irksome, but the stuff the film does explore is good enough to make up for it.)
When they get out, Ma goes through the difficult transition back to reality that we’d perhaps expect, but it’s Jack’s transition that’s the most fascinating. It goes without saying that the big, beautiful world is a wonderful reward for escaping captivity. And yet we can also understand why he misses Room. Humans are a resilient species, and while Larson is the entry point into the film and plays a key character, “Room” especially illustrates this fact not through the adult but through the 5-year-old.