Unless you’ve been held captive inside a shed for seven years, you’ve likely heard that Brie Larson (known for indie films like “Short Term 12” and “The Spectacular Now,” and blockbusters like “21 Jump Street” and “Trainwreck”) recently won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the film “Room.” Despite this win, I was skeptical before seeing the film. Hollywood’s fascination with kidnapping and abduction left me wondering if any performance in the genre could really surprise me.
“Room” is a 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue that was adapted by director Lenny Abrahamson. As the title suggests, the film follows a 24-year-old captive, Joy Newsome, who was abducted at the age of 17 and forcibly held inside a shed secured by a metal door, electronic key code and only given the most basic amenities. Joy is raped often by her captor, a man she calls “Old Nick,” and quickly becomes pregnant with the film’s narrator, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). The film opens on Jack’s fifth birthday, where Joy, or “Ma,” has a surprise: Today, they’ll be baking a birthday cake. “A real birthday cake?” Jack exclaims, with his grungy pajamas and shoulder-length hair. “Like in TV?”
That morning Jack greets the chairs, his toys shaped from tinfoil, the television set. These objects are his friends and Ma is his family. Almost daily they take vitamins, do exercises and read stories. Ma does such a good job raising Jack that he believes Room is where they belong.
With this opening scene, the audience realizes Jack’s reality is not one of dismay. The word “abducted” is not in his vocabulary. In fact, placing Jack as the narrator is one of the novel’s many strengths that inspired Abra-hamson’s film adaptation. “The territory explored in ‘Room’ should have made for a relentlessly bleak novel,” Abrahamson has written. “The author’s brilliant choice of Jack as narrator is what prevents this.” Where Ma sees darkness, Jack sees light. The audience is aware of both perspectives, creating a contrast that is ominous and captivating.
The clear magic of this film is found in Jack, both in his written character and Tremblay’s performance. Despite the circumstances, Jack maintains a naive sense of joy and discovery from beginning to end. His belief in the world is equally intriguing and crushing: Jack believes Room — the shed he was born in, lives in, which has nothing more than a skylight of the outside world — is his home. When Ma tells him the world is filled with people and animals, and that his grandparents have a house with a hammock where they could eat ice cream, Jack is in angry disbelief. “There’s Room, then outer space, then Heaven,” he argues. Jack’s perspective is astounding and devastating. Like Ma, we begin to believe Jack could never survive in the outside world.
Thankfully, the history of childhood trauma tells us not to underestimate Jack’s potential for healing.
Another exceptional approach is found in the film’s focus, which is not centered on the cruelty of “Old Nick,” but rather the beautiful and bizarre relationship between mother and son. Though there are heartwarming moments, the connection between Ma and Jack is purposefully unsettling. During their first separation, Jack puts Ma’s dislocated, rotten tooth inside his mouth to help him feel courageous. And later, when Ma needs strength, Jack cuts his hair and presents it to her like a gift. These two people are so dependent on one another, they require physical, bodily proof of their connection. The psychological effects of their years alone together becomes a much more interesting storyline than any focus on the villainous “Old Nick.” Donoghue should be applauded for this choice, as should Abrahamson, for bringing such a complex exploration to life.
In her Oscar acceptance speech, Larson thanks her 9-year-old co-star, Tremblay, by defining him as “half of this award” and “half of my performance.” But if Larson is the foundation of the film, Tremblay is the pillar. His performance raises the film to new heights. Without him, the film would likely be just another attempt of devastation in the abduction genre.
So, to answer my initial question: Yes, a performance in “Room” did surprise me. But it wasn’t the one I expected.