The cramped 11-by-11-foot interior of a sealed, sound-proof garden shed isn’t the only thing keeping a boy and his mother prisoner in “Room,” a suspenseful and heartrending drama that finds perhaps the most extreme possible metaphor for how time, regret and the end of childhood can make unknowing captives of us all. It’s a testament to the story’s underlying integrity that, even when deprived of some of the elements that made Emma Donoghue’s 2010 book so gripping, director Lenny Abrahamson’s inevitably telescoped but beautifully handled adaptation retains considerable emotional impact as it morphs from a taut survival thriller into a hauntingly conflicted drama of loss, mourning and gradual reawakening. With enough critical favor (especially for Brie Larson’s superb lead performance), plus a savvy marketing campaign that emphasizes the story’s killer hook, A24 might just have the call-your-mom-sobbing-afterward movie of 2015 on its hands.
It was wise to hand the task of adapting Donoghue’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel to the author herself, who surely knew better than anyone just how tricky it would be to retell her story without her most essential tools: chiefly, a mastery of language and interior monologue that kept us firmly locked inside the head of the story’s 5-year-old protagonist. For a reader diving into “Room” with no prior knowledge of its premise, it may well take more than a few pages to grasp the precise nature of what’s going on, so artfully does Donoghue mimic the voice of a small boy who has never been allowed to set foot in the outside world — and who indeed has no understanding of what “outside” and “world” even mean.
The film, by contrast, has no recourse but to give us an immediate view of this enclosed space, though Abrahamson and his gifted cinematographer Danny Cohen do a fine job of keeping as much concealed as possible. Lensed in dingy, muted colors and tight, widescreen closeups that deliberately frustrate our sense of space, the film places us in extremely close quarters with Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and Ma (Larson), the only other person he’s ever seen or spoken to. They spend every waking minute together in the room — or Room, as they call it, Jack having no awareness that there might be others like it. In these spare, grubby environs (expertly arranged by production designer Ethan Tobman), every object, like Table and Toilet and Sink, is not just a functional item but a friend. But no one is a better friend to him, of course, than Ma, and we watch with growing tenderness and trepidation as she attends to Jack’s every need: running him through a morning exercise routine, playing games with him, reading books to him, giving him a bath, fixing him a simple meal, and even baking him a cake to celebrate his fifth birthday.
That milestone aside, it quickly becomes clear that this day is much like every other that Jack has ever experienced — right down to the unhappy ritual of locking himself away in the wardrobe at night, when a barely glimpsed man known only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) opens the security-code-enabled door (or Door, rather), has an inexplicable yet noisy interaction with Ma, replenishes their food and supplies, and then leaves. By this point, adult viewers will know exactly what’s going on, and not a moment too soon, as Ma decides it’s finally time to tell Jack the truth: Seven years ago, she was kidnapped by Old Nick (“He stole me,” she explains) and imprisoned in Room. Two years later, Jack came along, and we immediately understand that this boy, despite the grim circumstances of his conception, gave his mother a reason to live.
Those who have read the book will be struck immediately by some of the compromises that Donoghue and Abrahamson have had to make here. In the book, the extended daily monotony of life in Room, imagined down to the smallest detail, is utterly crucial to the story’s sense of duration and claustrophobia; the onscreen version can’t help but feel rushed by comparison. And while the camera sticks as close to Jack as possible — even giving him self-narrated quasi-dream sequences in which he enthusiastically explains his extremely limited yet strangely captivating understanding of the world — there’s no getting around the fact that the story’s perspective has shifted to that of a third-party observer. In ways that were perhaps unavoidable from a dramatic standpoint, the film doesn’t fully convey the crucial sense of prolonged immersion in a psychological space, as well as a physical one.
Still, Abrahamson’s restrained, intelligent approach gives us the foothold we need, and the questions and potential plotholes that Donoghue was able to work out at length on the page — why couldn’t Ma dig her way out, why didn’t she try to kill Old Nick, etc. — are addressed as satisfactorily as possible in the necessarily compacted time frame. Those unfamiliar with the plot are here duly warned to stop reading until after they’ve seen the film, which only tightens its narrative grip when Ma devises an escape plan. And although the specific details of what happens next would have achieved even greater plausibility onscreen with a bit more time and concentration, there’s no denying the tale’s headlong momentum as Ma and Jack are fatefully separated — and then reunited, in a moment that loses none of the book’s emotional wallop.
In another kidnapping/survival yarn, that would be the end of the story, and a perfectly happy one at that. It’s here, however, that “Room” becomes altogether richer and more complicated as it delves into the lingering shellshock that afflicts Ma and especially young Jack, who is understandably overwhelmed by his immediate impressions of the outside world. Abrahamson, an Irish independent filmmaker whose very previous movies (“Frank,” “Garage”) struck a nice balance of humanist storytelling and austerely elegant visuals, pulls off some of his most striking effects here through compositional skill alone (which at times makes Stephen Rennicks’ score feel over-insistent by comparison). Cohen’s use of widescreen, an odd but strangely effective choice in terms of capturing Room’s interior, makes the outside world look big, empty and weirdly underpopulated by comparison. Jack’s first exposure to a white-walled hospital room is painfully overlit, like something out of science fiction; an establishing shot of an American suburban neighborhood conveys an inexplicable sense of menace.
At every step of the film’s second-half progress — which maintains keen focus and a slow-building emotional and psychological tension — Abrahamson and Donoghue invite and achieve an uncommon level of audience identification as they give due weight to their characters’ post-traumatic stress disorder. Their story implores us to consider the normal or expected passages to adulthood — the gradual separation from one’s parents, the growing sense of self-sufficiency, the ability to put away childish things, the understanding that what we are losing is (hopefully) being matched by what we are gaining — and to realize the impossible situation that now confronts Jack. Yet a subtle, provocative question also rises to the surface, slyly articulated in a scene where his mother wistfully scans the photos of her former classmates in a high-school yearbook: With their comparably blessed, sheltered, mundane lives, were they really that much better off?
As much as it may have lost in the translation from page to screen, “Room” has unmistakably gained something where its performances are concerned. Joan Allen is unsurprisingly excellent in the role of Jack’s deeply relieved yet emotionally shattered grandmother, while William H. Macy makes the most of his scenes as a grandfather who can’t quite bring himself to accept his daughter’s homecoming. Tremblay, a major find, doesn’t strike a false note as a soulful, spirited child who has been so thoroughly deprived of life’s traditional necessities and pleasures that he doesn’t even want them when they finally arrive. Given the script’s built-in limitations, the actor does a remarkable job of capturing the boy’s ever-shifting thought processes, the way frustration and bewilderment can suddenly gate way to an unexpected epiphany.
But it’s Jack’s relationship with his Ma that gives both incarnations of “Room” their force of feeling, and on these terms the movie is entirely successful. Larson drew well-deserved praise for her breakout performance as a counselor for troubled teens in “Short Term 12,” and the demands of that role, with its balance of tenderness and tough love, were in some ways an ideal warm-up for the startling display of mama-lion intensity she unleashes here. Her inner radiance undimmed by seven years’ worth of accumulated grime, exhaustion and defeat, Larson sometimes beams at her child with incongruous delight, and at other times gives full voice to the anger and impatience that a mom can feel toward her offspring even when they haven’t been forced to breathe the same foul air for five years. Even at its most forceful and despairing, her rage never feels like an expression of anything less than a mother’s love.