Actress Brie Larson had mostly been over-achieving in supporting roles until grabbing Hollywood's attention in 2013 in the fantastic indie film Short Term 12, where she took the lead playing a staff member at a foster care facility. That brought her roles supporting bigger stars, but if the powers that be need more proof that Larson can carry a movie, they don't need to look further than her astonishing performance in Room, director Lenny Abrahamson's adaptation of Emma Donoghue's best-selling novel about a kidnapping victim and her five-year-old son who has never known the world outside their prison, and the new perils their eventual freedom brings. But as dark as that premise sounds, it's the performances of Larson and her young co-star Jacob Tremblay that make Room so subtly triumphant and strangely, wonderfully relatable. Watch the trailer for Room below.
Larson plays Ma, who was kidnapped as a teenager and imprisoned in a reinforced, soundproof, 10-foot-by-10-foot shed for seven years and repeatedly raped by a man known simply as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Ma's young son Jack (Tremblay) was borne of these assaults, and Ma has worked valiantly to protect him from the horrors of their situation by creating an intricate alternate reality for Jack, where the outside world doesn't exist and their shed -- known simply as "room" -- is a complete private universe. But with Jack's fifth birthday, Ma realizes that Jack may be old enough to understand their predicament and help them escape. It's no spoiler to tell you that Ma and Jack eventually get away, and the scene where they do is incredibly harrowing. Yet in the film's second half, Ma faces an arguably greater challenge as she attempts to process what she's been through and return to a world that has moved on in her absence, while Jack is being introduced to the enormity of the world and everyone in it for the first time.
Donoghue, the author of Room and its screenplay, got the idea for the story after hearing about the real-life case of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman who was held captive for 24 years by her father in an underground bunker, where she was regularly abused and gave birth to seven children. While experiences like Fritzl's or Ma's seem uniquely horrific to the point of being unfathomable, the more I think about Room, the more impressed I am with how Donoghue was able to use it to explore growing up and the parent/child bond in ways that almost anyone could relate to. Jack and Ma's situation is extreme, yet it also highlights the desire of all parents to protect their children's innocence, using play, imagination, and a child's unquestioning trust to insulate them from humanity's ugliness. But as age makes Jack more feisty, willful, and curious, Ma must make the difficult decision all parents face of how much of the world's darkness she wants to reveal, and how much a child can even comprehend.
Once Ma and Jack are out of captivity, Donoghue manages to keep their experiences heightened yet still relatable. While Ma is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as she finally begins processing the horror of what she's been through, there are parallels to be drawn for anyone who has felt the conflicting emotions of returning to one's childhood home after a prolonged absence to be confronted with everything that has or hasn't changed, including ourselves. Do powerful life experiences make it so we can never truly go home? What if the relationships that anchor a home no longer exist, as is the case with Ma's parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) whose marriage couldn't survive their daughter's disappearance? What happens when children, with their seemingly infinite capacity for adaptability, must cope with a parent whose life and past traumas have become overwhelming?
Room is one of the year's most surprising and touching movies, which could have never happened without Larson and Tremblay's natural, totally believable performances that are able to turn the story of a horrifying kidnapping and its aftermath into a celebration of the transcendent bonds between parents and their children. With awards nominations for Larson (and hopefully Tremblay) virtually assured, don't count on her being one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets for much longer.