I wish I could have gone into "Room" not knowing as much about it as I did - I paged through the novel during an airport layover shortly after it was published, and managed to spoil the majority of it for myself. That way I could have enjoyed watching the story unfold, and gradually learned more and more about its haunting little universe along with the main character, a little boy named Jack. Even revealing the full cast list is probably too much information, so I'll be very vague about details in the following review. However, I found that knowing pretty much everything that was going to happen in the film still didn't prepare me for it.
Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives in Room with his Ma (Brie Larson). He's never known anything else beyond it, identifying the images on the television as "not real," and the skylight above as looking up on Heaven. A man named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) visits every few days and brings supplies, but Jack has to stay in the Wardrobe when Old Nick is there, because Ma has forbidden that they have any contact. Jack is happy in Room, but when Old Nick visits on his fifth birthday, Ma learns that their existence is threatened. She hatches a plan that will require Jack to leave Room and go on a dangerous journey, in order to save them both.
Brie Larson gives one of her best performances here, and absolutely deserves all the kudos that she's been receiving, but "Room" wouldn't have been possible without Jacob Tremblay. The child's voice and point of view are what give the movie a special poignancy, that add new dimensions to all the plot developments that look straightforward on the surface, but turn out to be anything but. Tremblay often reminds me of Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," as Jack is another very young child who is able to treat a horrid environment as a place of wonders, who creates his own personal mythology for the world based on limited information provided by troubled parent figures. Tremblay, however, has the more difficult assignment of playing Jack at different stages of his emotional development, and different levels of awareness about his situation. And he's remarkable at it.
I can't get over how genuine this kid is on camera, bratty and petulant at times, but never losing the audience's sympathies. Some of his dialogue is overly precious, but he delivers it well enough that you can believe he came up with the lines himself, and his reactions are wonderfully natural and unselfconscious. I'm very curious about how some of the trickier parts of the performance were handled, but then I'm also wary of peeking behind the curtain and ruining the illusion for myself. He's also helped immensely by being paired with Brie Larson, who, for the lack of a better term, he has real screen chemistry with. And then there's director Lenny Abrahamson, who never shies away from putting Tremblay front and center.
I was surprised by the intensity of the film, especially in the second half. There's a big, showy, suspenseful sequence at the midpoint that offers a lot of thrills and emotional fireworks. However, even when it seems like the immediate danger has passed, there are always more issues to confront, new realities to adjust to, and more old wounds being ripped open. Tensions can boil over anytime, and they do. The changing relationship between Jack and Ma drives the story, and the characters' struggles to reconcile their conflicting needs and wants are plenty riveting on their own. I love how their differing views of Room affect them, and how Ma slowly comes to realize that Jack is better equipped to deal with a particularly difficult situation than she is.
The only other Abrahamson film I've seen is "Frank," which I didn't care for, and which wasn't nearly as good a showcase for his talent. Here, Abrahamson turns common household items into beloved friends, domestic rituals into character-defining moments, and shots of blue sky and power lines into a glorious moment of discovery. "Room" was made on a very modest budget, and the scope of the story is very small, but it never feels that way. In other hands, the same material could have turned out very differently - fodder for a low budget genre exploitation flick, perhaps. However, it's heartening to discover that with the right talent involved, a small but heartfelt film like "Room" can still be made, and made well.