For 5-year-old Jack, the term "sheltered childhood" has a horribly dark meaning – of which he's unaware, since he's never known any other kind. He has lived his entire life without ever leaving the room where his mother's abductor took her seven years earlier.
A television set and single skylight their only connections to the outside world, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and Ma (Brie Larson) eat grilled cheese, exercise however they can, sail a paper boat in the tank of the toilet and endure visits from captor "Old Nick" (also an old-fashioned nickname for the devil). Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) shows almost no interest in his biological son as he foists himself on Ma, with Jack peering through the slats of the closet where he sleeps.
It's enough to make even the audience feel boxed in, restless and hollow. But what happens in this tiny space gives you more to think about than 10 blockbuster action films.
Confinement can be comforting if you know nothing else. Sometimes we think we're acting on another's behalf when we're actually giving ourselves what we most need. The true mother of invention is not necessity, but a fierce will to survive.
Rather than play up the obviously crazy creepiness of Old Nick, director Lenny Abrahamson (who showed a deft hand with realistic quirk in "Frank") focuses on the relationship between the boy and his mother, who devises an escape plan almost entirely reliant on Jack to succeed.
Based on the disturbing novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay, "Room" is really two movies – one transpiring before the escape, the other after.
Adjusting to life in the mad, wide world beyond the room proves nearly as challenging for Ma as it does Jack. They take refuge from the media glare with Grandma (Joan Allen), her kindly partner, Leo (Tom McCamus), and somewhat distant Grandpa (William H. Macy). Bewildered Jack must learn to navigate tasks as simple as walking up and down stairs.
Finishing what she began in 2013's "Short Term 12," a woefully little-known gem, Larson firmly establishes herself as the new indie queen of promise as Jennifer Lawrence did with 2010's "Winter's Bone." But the most impressive – actually jaw-dropping – performance is that of Tremblay as Jack, upon whose fragile shoulders weigh the film's primary point of view and much of its emotional effect. Oddsmakers say he's likely to get an Oscar nomination – and not since Leonardo DiCaprio's turn as Arnie in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" has a child actor been as deserving of one. Considering that Tremblay was just 7 when he shot "Room," it's an even greater accomplishment for both him and Abrahamson.
"Room" is sweet and hard, thought-provoking and heartbreaking. Aside from a couple of unnecessary comments played for easy laughs, Abrahamson and Donoghue respect their audience and avoid dumbing things down.
It's the kind of movie that draws you in so subtly that you don't realize you're under its spell until someone crinkles a popcorn bag and you want to yell, "Shut up!" For the same reason, it shouldn't be overly parsed in advance.
Contrary to the claustrophobic containment most of us would feel in "room," as Jack calls his former living quarters, he sees it as a place that keeps going, that is "never finished."
Like that cramped cell, "Room" is much bigger than the sum of its square footage.