The first thing you notice about Joy, Brie Larson’s character in the new film Room, is how her face betrays a deep frustration at odds with her name. Kidnapped at 17 by the rugged and otherwise anonymous Old Nick, Joy has spent the last 7 years living as Old Nick’s captive wife in a tiny, though furnished, garden shed. But through most of her captivity Joy has had her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) to look after—and keep her sane.
Intent on preserving Jack’s innocence, Joy raises him to believe that their Room, the cutesy name she gives their prison, is the entire world, surrounded by outer space. (She attributes the presence of Old Nick, who visits nightly bearing groceries and lustful passions, to some combination of magic and aliens.) For Jack, blissfully unaware of the life he could be living outside Room, each day is an adventure; for Joy, every day is a claustrophobic torment made bearable only by Jack’s undefiled delight.
Room is told squarely from Jack’s perspective—Jack is our narrator, the camera almost always follows him, point-of-view shots follow his own line of sight. By focusing on Jack, the filmmakers create a distance between the audience and Joy’s inner life to match the discrepancy between Jack’s naive happiness and Joy’s desperation. The dialogue, though fraught with emotion, is economical. Thus it’s to Larson’s great credit that we learn so much about Joy’s psychological instability from only her facial expressions and spontaneous changes in temperament.
Shortly after Jack’s fifth birthday, Joy decides he’s old enough to learn the truth about the real world—and, for that matter, to help her plan a breakout. Easier said than done. Joy’s attempt at explaining her kidnapping and the world outside Room ends with Jack, understandably, revolting with a mixture of disbelief, horror, and shrieks. Jack accuses her of lying and finally Joy reaches her limit: “I’m doing the opposite of lying, I’m un-lying,” she snaps. “You’re old enough to understand, we can’t keep living like this; you need to help me.”
The scene is a flurry of conflicting and disturbing emotions. Denizens of the real world as we are, we desperately want Jack to discover the world beyond Room. But like Joy, we also realize that a better life for Jack comes at the price of his innocence. Room doesn’t go so far as to suggest that Joy is a villain, but it does give us plenty of gray area to grapple with: Joy ruins the illusion of Jack’s otherwise happy existence; Joy chose not to have Old Nick take Jack away to a hospital at birth, prioritizing her own needs over the baby’s; Joy fails Jack as a mother after they finally make their escape. Old Nick may be responsible for their sordid situation, but his menace only floats into the story occasionally, evaporating by the film’s midpoint as though to underscore how the real conflict is between mother and son.
What awaits Joy and Jack on the other side of Room isn’t exactly the warm and fuzzy story you might have expected from the film’s trailers. The breakout scene itself pulses with euphoric energy, but the ecstasy wears off as the film settles in to its new, suburban setting and dons a wintery color palette that externalizes Joy’s lingering sense of malaise. Meanwhile, as Jack acquaints himself with his new surroundings, he also becomes increasingly and distressingly aware of the emotional and mental turmoil Joy has kept bottled up for 7 years. Though the scenes of physical captivity are affecting, Jack’s realization of the depths of his mother’s depression and instability hits the audience closer to home. Like Jack, we tend not to recognize when our neighbor is struggling until their pain and suffering boils over and breaks the surface; for many of us, our own burdens seem like enough to bear.
Even if you were the only two people in the whole world, would it be possible to experience true intimacy without knowing the burdens your neighbor is shouldering? Jack is too young to be entirely aware of his mother’s struggles—and thus partly off the hook—but watching Jack from afar we can see a bit of ourselves in his initial obliviousness. Short of stepping outside of ourselves and making an effort to know our neighbor, we are locked in our Rooms alone.
As the film progresses, Joy doubts her competence as a mother with mounting distress—often to Jack’s detriment. In a late scene, Joy confesses to Jack, “I’m not a good enough mom.” “But you’re Ma,” he responds with pure and genuine love. By now Joy has given Jack plenty of reasons to deny her forgiveness, but clemency is much easier to come by when your protagonist is a five year old child. No matter how great Joy thinks she has failed Jack, Jack’s love overcomes, just as our own failures are never so great as to separate us from God’s mercy and love. Thus Jack’s response reminds us we must always be prepared to meet our brothers and sisters in the same spirit of merciful love, whether we know of their struggles or not.