I’m going to tell you to see a movie called “Room,” and when I tell you what it’s about, you’re probably going to say, uh, no thanks. And then I’m going to say, well, yes, it sounds grueling in theory but it’s extremely beautiful in the playing, touching on the mysteries of perception and the most primal of human bonds in ways that can prompt tears or gratitude (or perhaps resistance, depending on how you feel about emotional manipulation or what you had for lunch).
I’d tell you that the film addresses the traumas and wonderment of childhood from the correct vantage point of 3 feet off the ground, and that it clears space for a familiar young actress to stake a larger claim on our attention. That even in its more ordinary second half, “Room” unfolds with the privilege of seeing and experiencing the world for the very first time, which is maybe the best we can ever expect from a medium like the cinema.
Those who want the full impact should probably stop reading now and just go. We’ll talk later. For the rest of you, “Room” is about a young mother, known as Ma (Brie Larson), and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who are kept imprisoned in a small shed in the backyard of the psychotic creep who kidnapped Ma when she was a teenager.
Wait, come back.
Writer Emma Donoghue has adapted her own much-admired novel for the screen, and she preserves, as much as possible, Jack’s patient, explanatory narrative voice, especially in the opening scenes. That’s crucial to the film’s power. What horrors there are we intuit only in Ma’s eyes — the everything she doesn’t tell him as she gives Jack the closest to a normal childhood she can manage, which to us is a parody of the real thing but to him is the real thing. For Jack, every particular of this tiny universe is lit up with essence. The room is Room; the sink is Sink, the potted plant is Plant. Ma’s dental calamity is dubbed Bad Tooth. Jack gets bulletins of the outside world from his friend TV, but they could just as well be hieroglyphics or myths. “Plant exists but not trees,” he tells us.
What happens when Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) returns each night with food and certain expectations is a mystery to Jack, whom Ma lays to bed in a worn blue cupboard, but not to us. But the boy is getting older — “Room” opens with his fifth birthday — and Ma decides to tell him the truth about the world, if only to start the process of turning him from child to co-conspirator. It’s not easy to explain real oceans and dogs and cars and other people to someone who has only known two-dimensional representations, seen from a three-dimensional womb. “I want a different story!” Jack yells back at first.
At the halfway mark, “Room” gathers itself into a knot of almost unbearable suspense and takes a leap into that outer world. New characters arrive on the scene, including Ma’s own mother, Nancy (a fine Joan Allen), and an estranged father (William H. Macy) who can’t bring himself to look at his grandson. One of the most touching figures is Nancy’s second husband, Leo (Tom McCamus), the rare adult who has the gift of talking to children without condescension or goo.
Jack’s adventures in this vast, bright universe are overwhelming to him and to us, from the first touch of a toe onto a hospital floor to a breakfast of pancakes to the novelty of a visitor’s knock (“Ma, the door’s ticking,” he whispers). Through Jack, we’re allowed to rediscover the miracle of discovery, and “Room” is exceptional at capturing those moments at their tiniest and most earth-shaking.
The film’s a collaboration of equals. The camerawork (Danny Cohen) hovers close to Jack’s perceptions, only gradually widening its view. Stephen Rennicks’s score is a major player precisely because it’s used sparsely, as delicate fill for things unsaid. The director, Lenny Abrahamson, made last year’s awkwardly engaging “Frank” — the movie with Michael Fassbender in a giant papier-mache head — but this is a career-changer, a work of nuance and, beneath that, great confidence. “Room” could turn mawkish at any moment, or merely sentimental. That it stays honest and true is a tribute to its makers.
As Jack, Tremblay is one of those kid performers with the knack of translucency, play-acting emotions that seem to rise naturally to the surface. Jack’s a real kid, at times an overbearing pain, but his love for Ma is heartbreaking in its totality. He’s a growing planet orbiting a warm maternal sun.
As that sun, Larson comes into her own. The actress has been banging around movies for 15 years, playing sisters and daughters and girlfriends and often standing watchfully back from the action, too smart to commit. Here, she commits. Those lucky to have seen 2013’s “Short Term 12” (it’s not too late) know what Larson can do with a lead role, and “Room” confirms it. Ma undergoes painful experiences once she and Jack arrive in the big world, and the movie is as much about her reemergence as her son’s. What we understand through Larson’s performance — what Jack doesn’t — are the costs of that re emergence and the fragility behind Ma’s apparently endless strength.
But finally “Room” comes down to a small person stepping out of a cramped universe into a broad and varied landscape of specificity. “There’s so much of place in the world,” Jack murmurs in amazement. Through his eyes, we’re newly amazed, too.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Written by Emma Donoghue, based on her novel. Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Boston Common.
118 minutes. R (language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.