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'Room' Transforms A Lurid Crime Story Into A Fairy Tale With A Boy Hero


This is FRESH AIR. In Emma Donoghue's best-selling 2010 novel "Room," a boy named Jack tells the story of his mostly happy life with his mother in a small room that he thinks for a while is the whole world. The novel's now a film directed by Lenny Abrahamson, starring Brie Larson as the mom and Jacob Tremblay as Jack. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I can't remember a day like October 16, 2015, with so many major movies opening. There's Steven Spielberg's espionage nail-biter, "Bridge Of Spies," a witty adaptation of R. L. Stine's "Goosebumps," the devastating African child soldier drama, "Beasts Of No Country," which is also on Netflix, a good political melodrama about Dan Rather's fall at CBS called "Truth," and "Experimenter," Michael Almereyda's mind-bending life of social scientist Stanley Milgram. But the film that hit me hardest is "Room," which transforms a lurid, true crime story into a kind of fairytale with a boy hero. Let me underscore that it's called "Room" and not "The Room" because the word is used as a proper name. Every day, 5-year-old Jack, played by Jacob Tremblay, says, good morning, Room, as well as, good morning, sink, good morning, TV, and so on. A "Goodnight Moon"-like ritual that turns a 10-foot-by-10-foot locked space with a distant skylight into something magical. Jack's mother, called Ma, played by Brie Larson, reads to him, tells him stories and encourages him to write and draw his own tales. What she doesn't tell him is that Room isn't the whole world. It's a prison fashioned by a sexual psychopath. It's shortly after his fifth birthday that she rocks that world.


BRIE LARSON: (As Ma) You remember how - do you remember how Alice wasn't always in Wonderland?

JACOB TREMBLAY: (As Jack) She fell down, down, down, deep in a hole.

LARSON: (As Ma) Right. Well, I wasn't always in Room. I'm like Alice. I was a little girl named Joy.

JACOB: (As Jack) Nah.

LARSON: (As Ma) And I lived in a house with my mom and my dad. You would call them Grandma and Grandpa.

JACOB: (As Jack) What house?

LARSON: (As Ma) A house, it was in the world. And there was a backyard. And we had a hammock. We would swing in the hammock. We would eat ice cream.

JACOB: (As Jack) A TV house?

LARSON: (As Ma) No, Jack, a real house, not TV. Are you even listening to me? When I was a little older, when I was 17, I was walking home from school...

JACOB: (As Jack) Where was I?

LARSON: (As Ma) You were still up in heaven. But there was a guy. He pretended that his dog was sick...

JACOB: (As Jack) What guy?

LARSON: (As Ma) Old Nick. We call him Old Nick. I don't know what his real name is. But he pretended his dog was sick...

JACOB: (As Jack) What's the dog's name?

LARSON: (As Ma) Jack, there wasn't a dog. He was trying to trick me, OK? There wasn't a dog. Old Nick stole me.

JACOB: (As Jack, yelling) I want a different story.

LARSON: (As Ma, yelling) No, this is the story that you get. He put me in his garden shed - here. Room is the shed.

EDELSTEIN: Irish-born novelist Emma Donoghue adapted "Room" from her own book, inspired by the story of the 5-year-old son of an Austrian woman held captive by her father for 24 years, though there are also similarities to the 18-year captivity of the American Jaycee Dugard. Donoghue has made a career of reworking fairytales. And she turns "Room" into a modern, more sinister damsel-in-distress saga, only told from the perspective of the damsel's child. The Irish director Lenny Abrahamson keeps the visits of her captor, Old Nick, for sex off screen or hazily seen through cracks in the wardrobe, where the boy is sent to sleep. But we see their impact in the bruises on Ma and in cruel acts of retribution, like Old Nick's decision, after an altercation, to cut the power and heat. Abrahamson knows when to make Room seem roomy and when to bring the camera so close that even this most tender, mother-child relationship chafes. The film's lone flaw is a score too shimmery with childlike wonder. It cues the audience how to feel. It would be wrong to describe what happens in "Rooms" midpoint climax. But it's heart-stopping. And the movie's second half is radically different. It brings out all the crazy contradictions in Jack's life. Unlike Room, the world outside has infinite space but limited warmth. The womb-room rhyme has rarely seemed so apt. Young Jacob Tremblay is very fine in early scenes. But it's the later ones that show his range, his ability to suggest profound dislocation with every step. And I don't know how to do justice to Brie Larson. She was a revelation as a damaged social worker in "Short Term 12." She's even better here. Her character achieves an easy rapport with her son by sheer force of will. But nothing is easy with anyone else. She's a woman out of time. Her final words in the film, three syllables mouthed but unspoken, make me shiver even now. The evil depicted in "Room" is hard to fathom, but the good is even more mysterious, the capacity of a child, when guarded by a loving parent, to project kindness onto the coldest, most malevolent environment. We've seen survival stories featuring people on desert islands or at sea. But it's the boy sustained by a room that's the most amazing.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. On Monday's FRESH AIR, raising a transgender child. Kelly (ph) and Wayne Maines knew when they became parents of identical twin baby boys there would be challenges. But they weren't prepared when one of their children started identifying as a girl. We'll speak with them and also with Amy Ellis Nutt, author of "Becoming Nicole," the transformation of an American family. Hope you can join us then. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.