Room is a startling movie experience, peculiar in setting and profoundly simple. It's a story of love born out of unseen horror, of nurture conquering nature. Room must be felt to be believed.
Emma Donoghue's 2010 novel unfolded entirely from the perspective of 5-year-old Jack, stunted as it is. Jack was born and has lived his entire life in a 10 x 10 garden shed, in the backyard of the man who kidnapped and impregnated his Ma.
Lenny Abrahamson's delicate film version spends its entire first half inside that tomb called Room, a place kept fairly cheerful by Ma's love and carefully chosen lies, and Jack's primal imagination. His friends are furniture; her terrors are kept hidden. In this dark place, Room's skylight shines on a fiercely devoted mother raising a uniquely precocious son.
It is a deeply intimate introduction to sordid, extraordinary circumstances, and a cramped stage for two of the year's finest performances. Brie Larson as Ma and newcomer Jacob Tremblay as Jack are a stunning combination, convincingly bonded and emotionally raw. Tears don't come cheaply in Room but they do come.
Abrahamson maintains Jack's first-personage from the novel as far as cinema allows, with voiceovers and camera angles. One smart decision is hiring Donoghue to adapt her novel to the screen, keeping themes pure, if not always the childish perspective. We learn more about Ma's life before Room, and see their captor Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) for the pathetic monster he is.
Trailers for Room reveal the story's second-half expansion to the outside world. They only hint at a pivotal sequence when Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent craft a mini-masterpiece of suspense, cinema at its purest with Tremblay as a conduit of fear. It's a grabber, the artists and their story bolting out of confinement into an oddly scarier world.
Room gradually becomes Ma's story, reuniting with her mother (Joan Allen), and not readjusting well. Our attention is always on Jack, whose naiveté about things regularly taken for granted is adorable yet sad. Tremblay conveys the trust of a child who never had a reason not to trust, which says everything about Ma's parenting skills in Room.
That mother-and-child connection is so strong that Room unavoidably fades as other characters get involved. Donoghue's extensive edits from her novel's second half cause some unbecoming instant melodrama to enter the picture, the movie slowly turning conventional but no less moving.
Room can be forgiven a bit of coasting at the climax, after the daring moves and performances preceding it. Abrahamson's devotion to Donoghue's vision matches that of Ma's to Jack, resulting in one of 2015's most unusual movie treasures.