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Suffer the Children

A mother and child cope with life after hell in Room
Brie Larson in Room
Brie Larson in Room

Recipe for an emotional pummeling: A mother and her 5-year-old son are locked up in a dank shed, held hostage by an evil piece of white shit who makes routine visits for creaky sex acts while the kid counts time, faking sleep in a tiny closet. Mom was abducted seven years ago, which means that the tight walls of “room” are all the child knows, all he comprehends of the world: his universe is a sink, bed, tub, table, television and the shed’s single skylight revealing endless blue nothingness.

These are the parameters of a never-ending nightmare that the fierce mother, doing her utmost, turns into a meaningful universe to protect the sanctity of her child. And then they escape, releasing the kid into the world as we know it, with its people and voices and colors and lights and doors that open into space and time.

This, then, is the blunt conceit of Room, a new film directed by Lenny Abrahamson and based on the popular novel by Emma Donoghue. It is an archetypal story of struggle and transformation — or rather, endless transformations, as mother and child, having dealt with the hermetic hell of captivity, are jettisoned into a clamoring new reality where they fight to establish themselves anew.

I’ll admit, I was suspicious going into Room, which has been almost universally heralded as a remarkable story of uplift and triumph of the human spirit. Feel-good movie of the year! What this usually means is that some ham-fisted filmmaker is going to lead us artlessly by the nose and hammer us senseless with the maudlin stick.

Fortunately, Room avoids such cinematic cynicism until its final scene, when a ridiculously swelling soundtrack butts in to tell us exactly how to feel. For the most part, however, the film is subtle and earnest, finding its emotional oomph in small, disarming details that ring true to life — as when 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Trembly, who is stunning) giggles in surprise at the splash of his first-ever shower.

Interestingly, what saves the film is, to some extent, its tendency to wander and fragment. In confronting such heavy material, director Abrahamson seems overwhelmed at times, and Room never quite establishes a defining tone; it abruptly shifts perspectives between Jack and his mother, Joy (Brie Larson, always excellent), and the focus is more on random intimacies and encounters than grand emotional gestures. The narrative is jumpy and uneven, picking up threads and dropping them, as when Joy’s father (William H. Macy), incapable of dealing, suddenly disappears from the film, never to return.

All of this works to continually defuse the film’s epic urges, creating, almost by default, a kaleidoscopic portrait of salvation that finds its power in shifting glimpses of small truths instead of big Wagnerian wallops — like a really great short story. The result is a movie that channels many voices: a child learning to comprehend the world as it is, whether locked shed or big, bad planet; a mother fighting simultaneously to protect and nourish her kid, no matter the situation; Joy’s own mother (the wonderful Joan Allen) struggling to make a new-old life for her traumatized daughter, regardless of lost time.

In many ways, then, Room is about childhood itself. It takes a tragic situation and writes it on everyday reality, turning a horrendous situation into a tricky metaphor about the pitfalls of child rearing. The “room” becomes any threat to undermine the parent-child bond. Is Jack any less well adjusted than some middle-class suburban kid who, despite outward comforts, suffers neglect or abuse at the hands of his parents? Room poses this question and, depending on our response, the answer is either unnerving or, well, uplifting. (Bijou Metro