Room is a powerfully acted ode to human resilience

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in Room

One of the bummers of winter, once the holidays are over, is the fact that film production companies are no longer in a rush to get their Oscar contenders out into the theaters before the year’s end. A long slump in movie-fare quality typically begins, with many of the new releases seeming like the studios’ poor stepchildren, shoved unceremoniously out of the nest into a harsh, unwelcoming world.

At the beginning of those doldrums, however – right after the Academy Award nominations have been announced in early January and other high-visibility film industry honors have already been handed out – is a brief period when audiences get a second chance to catch great flicks that they missed the first time around. Many cinema operators sit up and take notice when a movie that they either didn’t bother to screen when it first came out, or only ran for a week with minimal promotion, suddenly becomes an industry darling and lots of people are clamoring to see it. Those theaters that aren’t already contractually locked into a rigid schedule with distributors, planned many months in advance, will then often scramble to make time to show the prestige product, or extend a run that was supposed to end quickly.

So this is your chance, film buffs: In the next few weeks, keep an eye out for local showings of Oscar nominees that snuck by you a month or two ago, because a long drought lies just ahead that is likely to drive you to Netflix and your DVD collection. Right now I can bring you the good news that Upstate Films in Rhinebeck has added a week to its current run of one of those movies that practically nobody even heard of until it got lots of Golden Globes and Oscar love: Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. It’s an extraordinary film, truly worthy of the accolades being showered upon it.

Reading a plot synopsis, it’s easy to see why distributors might have assumed that hardly anybody would want to sit through Room. Based on Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel about a five-year-old boy named Jack who has spent his entire life in a single room where his mother is kept by her kidnaper as a sex slave, it sounds gruelingly depressing – but it’s not. Though certainly disturbing, Room is a gloriously acted paean to human resilience, mother love and a child’s imagination.

Inspired by true-life horror stories in the news, Room bizarrely parodies the beloved children’s book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, in which a baby bunny bids a litany of goodnights to each friendly, familiar object in his bedroom at dusk fades into darkness. The 12-foot-by-12-foot outbuilding known as Room is Jack’s entire world, and each object in it has its proper name. There is a TV, but in order to help keep him (and herself) sane in their confinement, Jack’s Ma, 24-year-old Joy Newsome (Brie Larson), tells Jack (Jacob Tremblay) that the images he sees on it are not real and that there is no outside world.

Kidnapped at age 17 and raped nightly by a man she knows only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), Joy finds a reason to live after Jack’s birth. She organizes their unthinkably narrow existence into a rich routine of exercise and play, learning and deep nurturing. But they are malnourished, and one day shortly after Jack turns five, their captor punishes Joy for demanding that he replenish the boy’s vitamin supply by turning off the electric heat in Room. Desperate to save Jack’s life, she concocts a plan to pretend that he has died of a fever, rolls him up in a rug and drills him in how to wriggle out of it when Old Nick throws it into the back of his pickup truck to dispose of the “body.”

Spoiler: Joy’s plan works, mostly – and that’s where the real meat of the movie begins. What is it like for a child whose tiny reality suddenly expands to encompass the whole world? Assailed by loud noise and bright sunlight, busy human activity and endless change, Jack retreats into himself and longs to return to Room. Joy has some serious adjusting to do as well, as she discovers that her parents are now divorced and her father (William H. Macy) wants nothing to do with the bastard child fathered by her tormentor. Emotional crisis ensues after a clueless, insensitive TV interviewer (Wendy Crewson) asks Joy why she was too “selfish” to ask Old Nick to abandon the infant Jack at a hospital shortly after his birth.

Fortunately, Joy’s mother (Joan Allen) and stepfather (Tom McCamus) are ready to supply the steady support needed to draw the wounded Ma and Jack out of their protective shells and back into the big world again. Beyond the uplifting message of the true meaning of family bonding, Room is also a meditation on the universal need for mothers to learn to let their children go when the time comes – whether they have lived in extremis or lives of bland suburban normality.

The acting in Room is superb all around, but the performances of Larson and Tremblay – who was only seven when the movie was shot – are sublime, and utterly deserving of every award that they garner. The movie’s narrative is as gripping and well-paced as any action thriller, its visual and sonic detail lovingly captured. See it while you still can.

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