There is an expression that gets thrown around a great deal that makes the statement “welcome to my world.” Shortened to the acronym and hashtag WTMW in our current social media lexicon, the expression is used, mostly sarcastically, to complain or illustrate to another person a certain aspect or hardship of your life that they do not readily understand or accept. To hint at a life lesson that will come later, your world is what you make it. People say “welcome to my world” to help a person gain sympathy towards where they are coming from situationally or emotionally. For those keeping score, sympathy is not the same as empathy. When someone drops a WTMW, they will gain concern and pity, but the only way to understand that so-called “world” to the level of full empathy is to share it and live it themselves.
Well, what if your “world” was a ten-foot box with a single skylight window? You would probably call it prison. You would call it a nightmare. In the powerful new festival favorite film “Room,” such a living space is treated as a magical home and created reality for a twenty-something mother named Joy and her five-year-old son Jack. How did they get there and why don’t they leave? That’s the alarming truth and fearsome predicament. Joy was kidnapped by a man named Nick and placed in that room seven years ago. Jack was born there and that room is all he knows of the world.
Take that in for a moment and sharpen your perspective. That arduous premise right there for “Room” is a “welcome to my world” scenario that no one should ever have the unfortunate ability to match with full empathy that comes from shared experience. This isn’t some high-concept science fiction experiment in isolation. “Room” is written by Emma Donoghue from her own award-winning 2010 novel of the same name, itself inspired by one of many such kidnapping cases that have occurred more often in this world than we want to fathom. Powered by remarkable poignancy and incredible performances, “Room” balances the bleak with the positive as few films can ever attempt given this subject matter. It takes a frightening story and finds immeasurable emotion and a resonating hope that will stir even the hardest of hearts.
“Room” begins on Jack’s fifth birthday. You see the long-haired Jack, played by Jacob Tremblay, awake in the morning after sharing a bed with his mother to greet the objects in Room, the name he calls this place. Voiceover and reactions describe and show the daily routine and lifestyle steered by his mother Joy, played by Brie Larson (last seen in this summer’s “Trainwreck” and “Digging for Fire”). As Stephen Rennick’s gentle and whimsical musical score sways, you seem them baking a cake for his birthday and you think nothing of the smallness of the room until you realize that they, and you, never leave. After enjoying his cake and feeding a visiting mouse, Jack begins his night sleeping in a hollowed-out closet because, tonight, a man named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers of HBO’s “Deadwood”) will unlock the door and enter Room to see Joy. He’s not there for pleasantries.
That chronicled first day sets the tone for “Room” and its journey to find hope in the hopeless. Nick’s oppression and the years trapped in this garden shed have taken their toll on Joy. She realizes that her energy to handle this is running out. Joy cannot continue to lie and shield Jack anymore and begins to “un-lie” and explain what life is like outside of Room, a concept Jack doesn’t understand. She does this to prepare him for the day when he might be lucky enough to escape. Even though the hints are there in the trailer, to say more would spoil the worthwhile dramatic build-up of events that develop from Donoghue’s novel and screenplay.
“Room” first premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September and has been barreling over audiences left and right. It won the People’s Choice Award at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. That has become a greater feather-in-the-hat than even the Palme d’Or from Cannes. Six of the last eight films to win that top prize in Toronto have gone on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, with three of them (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech,” and “12 Years a Slave”) winning the Oscar. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson (2014’s obscure “Frank” starring Michael Fassbender), this micro-budgeted film is on that level and deserves all of the kudos, acclaim, and stumping that can be showered and touted upon it. It is currently playing in select art-house theater locations in Chicago and will expand to a wider release to more locations through November.
Oscar better be knocking on “Room”‘s door this winter. The movie was born to impress for its writing and virtuous performances. Emma Donoghue’s adaptation on her own novel is brilliant. It is a story that unfolds in two halves and both are compelling and detailed. She better not receive the same Oscar snub that came to authors Gillian Flynn and Stephen Chbosky when they adapted their own award-worthy works in “Gone Girl” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” from the last two years. Equal the writing, the two lead performances in “Room” are nothing short of arresting and astonishing.
Jacob Tremblay is thoroughly endearing as Jack. His emotions feel raw and unscripted compared to other spoon-fed and precocious performances we see from other child actors. This is one of the best ever. Rank Trembley right up there with Henry Thomas from “E.T.” and Freddy Highmore from “Finding Neverland.” If he gets into the Best Supporting Actor conversation with Mark Ruffalo from “Spotlight” and Benicio del Toro from “Sicario,” Tremblay wouldn’t be stealing someone else’s place. He belongs there. Brie Larson also belongs there after being robbed of an Oscar nomination in 2013 for the criminally under-seen “Short Term 12.” She puts in, what stands in the clubhouse now in late October, the best lead female performance of 2015. Before the year ends, Cate Blanchett (“Carol”), Blythe Danner (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”), Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”), Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”), Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”), and Carey Mulligan (“Suffragette” and “Far From the Maddening Crowd”) might all have something to say about that, but Larson is unmistakably heartbreaking and compelling on so many levels.
This cannot be stated enough. “Room” is a jarring film that grabs you immediately and sticks with you long after you leave. Though it is told primarily through Jack’s perspective, our eyes lock often with Joy’s and we sympathize with her fears and desperation. We know, behind her positive spin and Jack’s fervent imagination, lies the immense nightmarish truth and the formidable obstacle that is really omnipresent in their lives. The weight hits you like a ton of bricks. If you are a parent such as Joy, this film will shatter you to pieces. It may even be too hard to watch. “Room” is, without a doubt, one of the most resonating, humbling, and difficult films this writer has ever seen. For it to transcend that and blossom to enrapture you the way it does is something completely spellbinding. You will not find a more powerful film experience this year.
Lesson #1: Be thankful you have safety and security for your family— Right from the get-go, the captive setting and circumstances in “Room” better make you incredibly thankful and relieved that you hopefully will never have to go through what Joy and Jack did for seven years. No matter who or what you worship or hold dear, thank your lucky stars you are not in their position, period. Never forget it and never take it for granted.
Lesson #2: The sacrifices to shield your children— Without what we take for granted from Lesson #1, one cannot help but admire what the character of Joy endured to shield her son from the horrible truths, threats, and depressive elements of their captivity. It took acting, lying, sacrifice, and an undying hope for Joy to put her best face forward and protect Jack unselfishly. She knows she’s creating future flaws in Jack, but they are necessary to outweigh the harsh reality. One cannot see this occur in “Room” without remembering the similarities to Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning “Life is Beautiful” from 1997, where a father goes out of his way to shield his son from the reality of a World War II concentration camp. “Room” hits that lesson as strongly as “Life is Beautiful.”
Lesson #3: Your world and home is where and what you make of it— Taking Lesson #2 a step further, Jack’s trusting response to and acceptance of Joy’s shielding created their own little world of existence. As isolating and decrepit as it was, Joy and Jack made a life out of that garden shed. They have a routine, duties, and traditions. It was home and, like the old saying goes, home is where you make it. Joy’s creativity and Jack’s imagination succeeded to make their home wondrous and beautiful despite the circumstances. Ugly or not, there was an unmistakable emotional connection to their created world, something, again, most of us take for granted. When and if, Jack and Joy enter a different world, that process begins again.
Lesson #4: The resiliency of children through innocence— With “Room” being presented primarily through the eyes of a five-year-old boy, we witness how resilient children really are. They are tougher than we give them credit for. Their innocence is what drives that resiliency. They act, love, long, grieve, and connect unconditionally and differently that us adults. They don’t have the same weight of stress and reality as the rest of us. They see the world with a wonder we adults grew out of. Much like the emotions seen in “Inside Out,” too often, we dismiss that children cannot, and should not, handle hardship when, in fact, they have to experience it at some point. When such hardships occur when they are young, children are surprisingly more optimistic and positive that all of us to come out of it alright. They are still hurt, mind you, but they have the time and resiliency to heal.
Lesson #5: The unbreakable bond between mother and child— The security from Lesson #1, the shielding from Lesson #2, the home life from Lesson #3, and the innocence from Lesson #4 all speak to this final lesson. In this writer’s opinion, there are very, very few things more powerful and beautiful in this world than the bond between a mother and her child. The removed umbilical cord may sever the literal physical connection between the two, but the emotional one is nearly impossible to break. Joy and Jack are rightfully inseparable. When they are apart, they are not the same. Sure, that boy will grow up someday to be a man, but he will look upon his mother and know how to live, how to love, and how to be a parent himself equal to how his mother was for him.