It is Jack’s (Jacob Tremblay) 5th birthday and he wakes his mother, whom he calls “Ma” (Brie Larson), sleeping next to him. Ma has a present for him and they bake a cake together in a small one-room apartment where they live. Jack, however, is very unhappy that Ma doesn’t have any candles for the cake. The television, with fuzzy reception, plays in the background. Jack loves “Dora the Explorer.” There are a few books on a shelf that Ma reads to Jack and he knows Alice in Wonderland very well.
A man named “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) comes to visit at night. When they hear him coming, Ma tells Jack to sleep hidden in the wardrobe until the man leaves. Ma makes sure that Jack and Old Nick never see each other. Old Nick brings them supplies. One day Ma asks for certain things and Old Nick becomes angry because he lost his job and has no money. He turns off the heat to make Ma pay for making him mad.
Little by little it dawns on the audience that Ma and Jack’s “home” is a single room, about 10 foot square. They have a sink, a tub, a toilet, a stove, a carpet, and a single bed that the two of them share -- and they cannot leave. They are locked in. Their only connection to the outside world is a skylight and the television. They call the place where they live “Room” as if it is actually a place. It’s all that Jack knows, but not so Ma, who was 17 when Old Nick kidnapped her, imprisoned her and raped her.
When Ma realizes that Old Nick has no way to take care of them she begins to plan a way to escape, something she was unable to do until Jack was old enough to help. Even now Ma has to carefully explain the difference between their reality and the “reality” and non-reality of what they see on television or read in stories. Intellectually, it’s all very abstract for Jack who thinks the only “outside” is what lies around or above “Room” but he goes along with Ma’s plan because he trusts Ma completely; she is his whole world, his universe.
“Room” is based on the award-winning 2010 novel of the same name by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue. While it seems to Americans that the story could be drawn from the story of Jaycee Lee Dugard who lived a similar story or the three women in Cleveland who were held captive as well, Donohue’s novel stems from her own experience as a mother and old myths about virgins who are walled up in castles and give birth, often to heroes, as it says on her website. The Fritzl case in Austria also influenced her, especially how the youngest child, 5 years old at the time of his release along with his mother and siblings from a similar prison, might have survived. Jack is the narrator in the book and is the dominant narrator in the film, through his experiences, his words, and the looks on his face.
There are two key elements of this remarkable film that prevent it from becoming an episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” First, is the cinematography and the way the camera makes the audience feel claustrophobic while Ma brings their squalid room to life by creating rhythm for their days and naming every object in it. Jack is her precious gift, and though Jack does not know it at the time, he is the means of Ma’s salvation. We feel Ma’s anxiety and her incredible strength to save her child. The second key element, is the role of the television in the film; it’s not just a prop, it’s an actual character that means different things to Jack and Ma.
At the press day I asked author and screenwriter Donahue about the role of the television in the story and she replied:
When I was writing the book I struggled over whether they would have television or not because I knew they would not be fully connected to the outside and obviously wouldn’t have the Internet, but without the TV it would be like the 19th century. I wanted their world to be modern but isolated. Yet I didn't want it to dominate their lives or take over the story; it had to be limited and not on all day. In a way the TV, entertainment, is what was lulling Jack all these years. Once Jack asks questions and Ma begins to explain reality, the television becomes a way for Jack to figure out how he fits into a wider world and it brings up all sorts of things. I love the scene when Jack is beginning to figure out the different 'reality' of different shows and watches a period drama. Ma explains they are real people pretending to be people. This question of what reality is or isn’t makes the TV an enormously rich component of the film.
Director Lenny Abrahamson explained further that:
The transition from the inside world to the outside would have been entirely different without the TV. Ma tells Jack that he’s clever and he knows the difference, but Jack doesn’t want to acknowledge this, much the same way children know there’s no Santa Claus but everyone keeps the secret. Once Jack gives himself permission to think of reality in new ways, he begins to put together the pieces of the puzzle of their existence. The TV helped him do this. Without it, the transition to the world would have been catastrophic for him, like seeing cars or airplanes on TV and then seeing them for real.
Brie Larson as Ma is brilliant and completely believable. To prepare for her role she spent a lot of time alone, since before Jack is born Ma is alone for two years. I think Larson and young Tremblay are both going to be up for awards for “Room.” Abrahamson’s told journalists that they shot the film sequentially, and as the days went by, with a six-member crew plus actors in that small room, they were all ready to burst out of it.
There is one more dimension to the film that moves it beyond the tabloid space and that is we don’t see anything explicit: We learn what happened and what is happening, but Ma and her son are characters that draw deeply on their inner strength. Also, I think we spend less than half the film in the room, the rest is their escape and how both Ma and Jack -- and Ma’s family -- adjust to the world outside. Joan Allen, who plays Ma’s mother, read about Terry Probyn’s experience as Jaycee Dugard’s mother after they were united; reunification is very difficult for all. Allen said that Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay’s acting had perfect pitch but so did she.
“Room” is at once a crime and survival story, a story about family and society’s awkward, unspoken accusations toward a young woman who did the best she could. It is about a mother’s unconditional bear-like love for her child. Jack and Ma save each other, and we can imagine them continuing this grace-filled relationship through the years. And if you are a student of communication and technology you will want to see how “Room” explores the role of a television as a story-telling medium and so much more.
[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]