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Room creates an unforgettable experience

This week's splendid, gut-wrenching and unforgettable film reminds me of one of the many Buddhist proverbs I have floating around in my head. It goes something like this: What's the difference between a one-room hut and a thousand-room mansion? You can only ever occupy one room at a time, after all. The totality of the house exists only in your head. Creature comforts can liberate the body, but what about the soul?

Room—the latest from director Lenny Abrahamson, adapted from the novel by Emma Donahue—tests this proverb to a horrifying extreme. The film stars Brie Larson as Ma, who we first meet on the morning of her son's 5th birthday. She and Jack (played by 8-year-old actor Jacob Tremblay) wake up huddled together on a single-sized bed in what we come to learn is a 10-foot-square shed in the backyard of her kidnapper. It's a suffocating but not entirely uncozy space, with sick fluorescent lighting and kid's drawings taped to the walls. She was just 17 when the man they call "Old Nick" (Sean Bridgers) lured her in with a phony story about a sick dog. By the time we meet her, seven long years have passed. It's a testament to both the brilliant performances and Donahue's elegant, concise screenplay that we're able to feel the weight and totality of the imprisonment in such a brief space.

In these initial scenes, we see the tremendous effort Ma has taken to create a happy, normal routine for Jack. They do stretches, play and read books; much of it looks like ordinary life. A fuzzy television and the skylight overhead are their only windows to the world outside. We understand implicitly that Jack's arrival has saved Ma from loneliness and given her purpose, yet a chasm exists between them. Jack accepts his diminished world because he simply doesn't know what he's missing. Ma, on the other hand, can't help but ache for everything she's lost. Freedom has become for her the dangling carrot, the thing that will finally make her complete.

click to enlarge “If Martha Stewart can do it, we can do it.”
  • “If Martha Stewart can do it, we can do it.”

Their eventual escape from the room is both turbulent and thrilling, and it opens up the film's trepidatious crawl into life outside. Room's second half sprawls out at a pace that defies our inherent sense of movie logic. I had the feeling that the story could abruptly end at any moment, and I didn't want it to. I'd come to deeply care for these characters, and I didn't want them to leave me.

We meet Ma's parents, played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy, along with a host of other new faces, all of them sensitive and interesting and perfect in their own right. At first we are occupied with Jack, because of the extraordinary culture shock, but kids are resilient and he seems to adjust okay. For Ma, life outside the walls brings with it an unexpected grief. The carrot doesn't taste as good as she imagined it would, and years of systematic rape and terror have taken their toll in unpredictable ways.

More than anything, Room succeeds in creating an intensely visceral emotional experience. It's a rare and special film that can tackle questions as big as abuse, loss and the enduring power of love so directly, and with such blunt, brutal force. Room demands not just to be seen, but felt—and the feelings echo long after you've left the theater. This is destined to be one of the year's best and most celebrated films.

Room opens at the Roxy Fri., Dec. 4.

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