It’s amazing how much Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay can do within one 11-by-11-foot space.

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in Room.

Photo by George Kraychyk. Courtesy of A24.

There are experiences the mind shies away from imagining too fully. Every few years one of those cases comes to light in which someone—and let’s be honest, it’s pretty much always a woman—has been held captive for years on end by a self-appointed jailer (a man, because, all due respect to the many men I love, what other subset of our species keeps coming up with this shit?). You know the kind of case I mean: the quiet loner who abducts one or more women and systematically isolates them from the outside world, using their bodies as he sees fit.

When such awful stories break, we focus for a few feverish days on the drama of the rescue. We look for a heroic neighbor to lionize (and, if he proves to have an eccentric style of self-expression, to Auto-tune.) We marvel at the Rip Van Winkle spectacle of the victim’s sudden reintegration into a now-changed world. We shudder to be reminded of all the familiar yet inventive forms that human evil can assume in the world. But the sheer stretch of time that person spent locked away—years made up, just like our own, of an unceasing progression of days, hours, minutes and seconds—is a part of the story we have trouble allowing ourselves to imagine. How did the abducted person retain her sanity in the absence of all but the most rudimentary personal agency? What reasons did she find to go on living? And in those cases in which her imprisonment and rape resulted in a pregnancy, how in God’s name did she go about raising that child?

Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, based on the excellent 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue (who also scripted), turns an unflinching eye on the day-to-day reality of parenting while kidnapped. Yet the story it tells is not only one of fear and deprivation: In the shared world 5-year-old Jack and his young mother manage to create together, there is also humor, beauty, and love. Room was loosely inspired (or, as Donoghue has put it, “triggered”) by the real-life story of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian man who for 24 years confined his daughter in his basement, where she gave birth to seven children fathered by him. The crime Room imagines is less lurid but just as painful: Joy (Brie Larson), abducted at 19 by a stranger (Sean Bridgers), is locked in a soundproofed garden shed in his backyard. After spending a couple of years in a deep depression, she gives birth, alone, to a boy who becomes her reason for coming back to life. By creating elaborate rituals and routines to structure their days, Joy has taught her son (Jacob Tremblay) to read, write, and do basic math; together, they sing songs, learn to measure, and even bake a birthday cake. But their days and, especially, nights together are always at risk of being interrupted by a visit from the man who Jack calls “Old Nick,” who seems to him like some combination of a malevolent Old Testament God and Santa Claus.

By telling its story exclusively from the point of view of a child just beginning to differentiate between his interior world and the world, Room the novel became as much a narrative experiment as a familial drama. Room the movie can’t use the same techniques to bring you inside Jack’s head, but in the film’s first (and best) half, Danny Cohen’s cinematography captures something like the subjective experience of childhood. Seen in low-angled close-ups in just the right shaft of light, the grubby surfaces and worn objects in claustrophobic, 11-by-11-foot, cork-tiled Room start to take on their own luminous beauty—though the effect might have been more transporting without Abrahamson’s frequent overlays of voice-over narration (by Tremblay) and mood-enhancing music (by Stephen Rennicks.)

Maybe that luminosity is just emanating from the presence of Brie Larson. Larson is only 26, but here as in 2013’s Short Term 12 she gives evidence of having covered a lot of emotional and experiential ground in her short time on the planet. She lets us see Joy’s struggle to keep her child healthy, safe, and happy, and, at the same time, her deeper-buried fight to keep herself going, to fight off the daily temptation to sink into despair. Most of all, Larson conveys Joy’s fierce love for the world she was ripped out of, and which she’s determined her son will get to experience. It’s not just an emotionally moving performance but a thoughtful one, full of insight about parenting and human nature—and made richer by Larson’s seemingly symbiotic bond with the 9-year-old Tremblay, who’s a wonder to watch throughout young Jack’s remarkable journey. 

I don’t want to reveal much about the plot developments that divide Room neatly into two acts, except to note that the second half of the film loses some of the dramatic steam built up in the first, especially when Larson is off screen for a stretch. Although Room makes us look at some difficult-to-see things, it’s never cruel or sadistic, either toward its characters or the viewer. There’s no sensationalistic wallowing in the misery of Joy and Jack’s plight; indeed, the secret to their long and relatively happy coexistence in Room has been their staunch refusal to wallow. Though it goes to places as dark as any you could imagine, Room carries at its heart a message of hope: Two people in four walls can create a world worth surviving for, if they love each other enough.