“I’ve heard it’s good, but there’s no way I’m going to see that movie.”

I’ve heard that on several different occasions from several different people — and all of them were mothers.

And who cam blame them? Room is a movie about a woman living out a nightmare.

For the record, I am a male of the species, and I am not a parent. And frankly, my heart didn’t leap at the prospect of seeing a film about a woman who is imprisoned for seven years in a toolshed, and who gives birth to and raises a boy for five of those years.

But as the movie Short Term 12 made me want to follow actress Brie Larson anywhere, the raves for her performance in Room sealed the deal: I was going to sit through this movie no matter how difficult. And I am so glad I did — not only because Larson is magnificent, but also because the boy playing her 5-year-old, Jacob Tremblay, is quite a discovery.

Room_Ma and Jack

Tremblay gives one of those child-actor performances that comes along once every few years, in which the child seems oblivious to the camera, so immersed in the character, the scenario, and the relationships that it almost disrupts your suspension of disbelief. (Think of Victoire Thivisol in Ponette, Anna Paquin in The Piano, Max Records in Where the Wild Things Are, or Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild.)

Now, you might still be thinking “I don’t want to watch a mother and child suffer like this.” And that’s a reasonable objection. You don’t have to.

But what captivated me about the first hour of this film is the tenderness, the imagination, and the radiant love at work in the mother-son intimacy — how, as in Life is Beautiful, a parent must sustain a child’s hope and capacity for joy by translating their circumstances into a sort of schoolroom. Their tiny cell — which they call “Room” — does begin to seem rather spacious as we learn how Ma is making the most of the available space, their necessary furniture, the wardrobe in which Jack sleeps, and the tiny skylight high on the ceiling where the appearance of a leaf becomes a momentously “teachable moment.”

Room skylight

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I do want to offer some reassurances to worried moviegoers: You may have heard that the main character is a rape victim, and that’s true — but there are no onscreen rape scenes. You may have determined to avoid scenes of graphic abuse, but the appearances of the villain are few and surprisingly non-violent. I’d encourage moviegoers to see Room in spite of — and, in fact, because of — its intense emotional journey. The rewards are well worth what the film demands of its audience. Director Lenny Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue (adapting her book) show remarkable, admirable restraint in their depiction of this nightmare.

Unfortunately, the film’s second half feels a bit unsure about what to do with its time. What could have become a study of lives lived beyond “Room” — lives similarly bound, limited, and confined by other kinds of walls — takes a rather meandering path instead. It’s an observant, patient, but not particularly compelling study of the challenges faced by trauma victims after the worst of their sufferings.

Again, I’m trying to avoid spoilers in this review, so I’ll leave it to you to decide if the second part of the movie maintains stylistic continuity and storytelling substance. I found Abrahamson’s directorial imagination to become less and less interesting the larger his canvas became, the more he “zoomed out” from that initial closed space. He delivers a few inventive and Malick-esque flourishes within “Room,” but the film’s point-of-view feels too flexible and inconsistent to me, so that I lose intimacy with the characters and my sense of a strong central thread in the later chapters.

And yet… and yet… Room has strong staying power, primarily because of the intensity of its premise. I did not imagine that I would relate to Ma and Jack during their time within the toolshed, or that I would feel such emotional resonance with the challenges that come to them later.

For the record, I did not grow up locked in a toolshed, and my mother was not a sex slave. My father was not abusive. My parents were creative, resourceful, and a lifelong model of faithfulness and generosity. My childhood seems too good to be true when compared to this horror story. And that in itself makes Room seem horrifying to me in a different way than it would to a victim of abuse.

Room_eggshellsAnd yet there was something deeply, hurtfully familiar about Room. And I suspect that you will think so too. We all can name a “Room” that we’ve experienced: a space that was too small, a context that was too oppressive or confining, a scenario that limited our freedoms or kept us from access to the truth.

For me, in childhood, my “Room” was the way that a fundamentalist evangelical culture taught me that “The World” beyond our community of the faithful was too corrupt, dangerous, and worthless for us to engage. We were safe in our religious room, our religious vocabulary, our certainties, our insularity. I’m grateful that I received the grace of good teachers who introduced me to great art and literature, which served as windows on “The World,” and which also served as a mirror, revealing that there was just as much sin and corruption and trouble right there in our “Room.” I’m grateful for the wisdom of theologians who showed me that the Scriptures are full of exhortations to engage, celebrate, and love “The World Outside” with courage and humility. But breaking out of the box of conservative-evangelical separatism and escaping into the kind of world that God meant for us to explore and inherit — that was a costly, painful process, and the wounds of that experience will always be with me.

In adulthood, I have found myself trapped in another kinds of “Rooms” where my needs have been disregarded, my creativity stifled, where a well-intentioned endeavor to “think outside the box” inspired jealousy and insecurity in others who effectively ensured I would not get that chance again.

During my graduate studies in writing creative nonfiction, I came to realize that most (if not all) of my memoir-focused essays were ultimately about escape — escape from limited perspectives, insufficient vocabularies, exploitative relationships, functions that serve others’ purposes but disconnect me from my calling.

If you were to write your own personal Room stories, what would the Rooms be? Are you still trapped in them? Have you convinced yourself that it’s better there, where you know what to expect? Do you find yourself free sometimes, but then drawn back in at other times? I suspect that you can name individuals, communities, and other forces that have locked you up, denied you access to the truth, and sought to exploit you for their own purposes.

This is the gift that Room gives us: a narrative and a vocabulary that lends itself readily to so many of our day-to-day challenges. Sure, it’s about a nightmare scenario, and I’m inclined to think that objections from those who refuse to see it are evidence that they know this emotional territory already, or else they have a healthy aversion to seeing any child deprived of freedom, family, friends, and open skies. God bless them! But I also believe that, while Room is a difficult and demanding experience, it will be useful to moviegoers in their discussions about their own challenges. It will kindle our our attention to and compassion for our neighbors, and increase our desire for the freedom to become what we were meant to be.

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