First the movie then the metaphor:
Room, based on the bestselling book by the same name, tells the story of a young woman, Ma, who has been locked in a shed for seven years after being abducted when she was seventeen years old and her five-year-old son, Jack, the child she bore while captive. The room they are kept in is all Jack knows. It is his entire world. Jack is Ma’s entire world.
Ma is played by Brie Larson, a twenty-six-year-old actress with seventy-six-year-old eyes. Larson bends every ounce of that soulfulness in service of this character who has experienced more trauma and found more strength than anyone should ever have to experience or find. Ma is fragile and ferocious all at once. Larson’s performance is as good as any I’ve seen this year in any movie.
The movie itself is as emotionally wrought as you would expect. The terror of being locked in that room with Ma and Jack is constant, and the empathetic stress you feel for Ma as she tries to save her son both psychologically and physically is intense. The movie isn’t as claustrophobic as you might fear, because it isn’t until late in the film that we are given a good sense of how small the room really is, but the situation itself is trying.
Room holds off giving us a good sense of the smallness of the space because the story is told from the perspective of Jack. Since the room is all he knows, he knows nothing larger. Size is relative. To him, the room isn’t small. It is the entire world. Jack’s perspective can be kind of frustrating at times too, because you never know what Ma is thinking until she shares what she’s thinking with Jack. It’s like there’s another story happening in Ma’s head that we only learn of in snippets. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of Brie Larson’s performance – Ma is always just a little bit mysterious, so we focus in to try to discover a little more about her. The dynamic serves Room well.
The metaphor at the movie’s heart is like something out of a C.S. Lewis story. All Jack knows is the room, and he can’t imagine the bigness and realness of the world outside. It’s like the opposite of what the Prince, Scrubb, Jill, and Puddleglum experience in the Witch’s dungeon in The Silver Chair. In that story, the Witch almost convinces the quartet that Narnia is just something they made up and that the dungeon is all the world that ever was. Puddleglum finally sees through the Witch’s lies and delivers one of my favorite passages in any of Lewis’ books:
“One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
Room’s narrator, Jack, has a few similar monologues that hit the allegorical nail on the head just as hard even if the story of Room is much more visceral and realistic than The Silver Chair. The metaphor is potent though and encouraging, because Jack’s room and Puddleglum’s dungeon in their stories are just as real as the broken parts of our world, and the rest of the world outside the room and Narnia are as real as the parts of our world that are being redeemed as well. Jack’s real world, Puddleglum’s “playworld” and the Kingdom of God are the hope we hold onto when the limits of our world are all too evident. Harder still is Jesus’ command to live in the world to come even before it arrives, because doing so brings the Kingdom Come to our world today. In the same way, Ma can’t bring the real world into the room, but she can love her son and give him small tastes of the world he’ll find if ever they can escape.
Can they escape? If so, how? And what will they find in the world outside? That’s the movie, right? (Though if you watch the trailer below, you’ll get answers to all those questions, so I suggest avoiding it.) In any case, Room is intense but not scary, trying yet hopeful, simple in story yet rich in theme, and it features one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.