In Lenny Abrahamson’s Room—a film which might have just as easily been titled Womb—five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives with his mother (Brie Larson) in a state of symbiotic co-dependency. He has never seen the outside world, having spent his entire life within the confines of the toolshed-cum-prison where both he and “Ma” have been locked away by a sadistic redneck. For Ma, each day offers the same hellish routine, monotonous and soul-crushing, from which there appears to be no escape. For Jack, who has never known any other way of life, there is no place outside the four walls of “Room” to which to escape in the first place. Aside from their captor, whom Jack glimpses through the slats of a closet door, Ma is the only person he has ever seen: they share meals, baths, and a bed, and he still nurses at her breast.
Lest this should sound unbearably grim, and as anyone who has seen the film’s trailer already knows, readers should know that Jack and Ma eventually contrive a way to free themselves from Room, whereupon they attempt to make a life with Ma’s mother (Joan Allen). The remainder of the film concerns their re-adjustment to life outside, their difficulty in processing the trauma of their captivity, and their attempt to form independent selves apart from each other. Where the nail-biting first hour of Room could be described as tabloid Gothic, the second hour, in which we see the formation of a new family and a new home, is reassuringly sentimental: everything, it seems, is going to be okay.
Based on a best-selling novel, Room is firmly rooted in a centuries-old lineage of novels, films, and television programs about imperiled women and children, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Victorian sensation fiction to the Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s and Dr. Phil. This is essentially Lifetime-channel material elevated by A-list acting; the premise recalls such made-for-TV classics as I Know My First Name Is Steven, The Kissing Place, and The Burning Bed, all of which center on abducted children and battered wives. In spite of its gritty look and faux-verite camerawork, Room might have aired on NBC in 1987 (“Tonight! Melissa Gilbert and Macauley Culkin star in…”).
That is to say that Room, while involving and sensitively acted (especially by Larson and Tremblay), ends up feeling shallow and gratuitous. Ma and Jack are framed first as victims, then as survivors; we’re made to feel appalled by their suffering, then ennobled by their resilience, without ever being convinced that this story deserves our attention in the first place. The movie is sad/scary, then inspiring/hopeful. Then it is over. It represents the laziest kind of storytelling—an attempt to pander to audiences, manipulating them in equal measure with images of sexual abuse (“isn’t that horrible?”) and kids playing with dogs (“isn’t that cute?”). Much like Lee Daniels’ Precious, Room uncritically deploys a series of sentimental tropes and encourages us to respond to them in similarly uncritical ways. Ultimately, the development of its worldview—as well as its understanding of its own existence—remain as arrested as Jack’s.