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Director Tackles Universal Themes of Survival and Parenting in Riveting 'Room'

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Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in A24’s 'Room.' Photo by George Kraychyk. Courtesy of A24.

In Room, the film based on the acclaimed novel by Emma Donoghue, director Lenny Abrahamson deftly draws viewers into the lives of five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother, whom he calls Ma (Brie Larson). The two have been captives in the tiny reinforced shed, which they refer to as “room,” for all of Jack’s life. Ma, who was kidnapped as a teenager and eventually impregnated by her captor, Old Nick (Shawn Bridgers), sees room as a prison.  But Jack considers it home—even a magical place—thanks to his nurturing mother and his imagination and innocence.

Viewers who aren’t familiar with the book may, at first, think they’re watching a movie about prisoners that will end with their escape. But they’ll soon discover Room is taking them on a very different, and ultimately far more rewarding, journey. 

“To focus on Ma and Jack’s incarceration is to tell the story on the terms the abuser sets,” explained Abrahamson, during a recent interview. “We’re telling the story on the terms of the survivors. This is really a film about being a child, about having children and about growing up. ”

Abrahamson agonized over finding the right actor to play Jack. But Tremblay stood out from the many other kids who auditioned for the role from the moment they met. “He was not just charming and sweet, he also brought all the tools of a great actor,” Abrahamson remarked. “I felt like I was at the casino and hit the jackpot.”

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Jacob Tremblay in A24’s 'Room.' Photo by George Kraychyk. Courtesy of A24.

He felt just as lucky to cast Larson as Ma, both for her acting skill and the easy way she bonded with Tremblay. Larson’s strong, controlled performance brings a perfect blend of grit and vulnerability to the role of a woman trying to be the best possible mother to her child while simultaneously grappling with the horrific trauma she’s endured. 

“I don’t think I’ve seen a stronger lead performance for a long time than Brie in this film,” said Abrahamson. “She has a lightness of touch as an actor that allowed her to be warm and present when weren’t shooting. That was really important to us, because we had a little boy on the set who was paired with her for so many scenes.”

The Irish director collaborated closely with author Donoghue—who is also Irish and wrote the screenplay for Room —to bring the book’s complex story and themes to life on screen in a compelling yet natural way. He didn’t want to resort to gimmicks, such as animation or making the things Jack talks about too magical, to tell the story from Jack’s point of view. Abrahamson was also determined to avoid exploiting audiences by making a film that was overly sentimental, or at the other extreme, too bleak.

 “I thought that would just distance the audience from what is the strongest aspect of this film, the sense that it’s a real encounter with these characters,” he said. “You trust that an audience brings this empathetic tenderness to characters if they’re well shown. That kind of emotion is way more real and lasting than either shock or sentiment.”

The movie is divided into two distinct parts. The first half immerses viewers in the world of room, as Jack sees it, and Ma’s growing resolve to get him out of it.  The opening scene shows Jack going through a morning routine a typical child his age might follow—waking up, stretching, getting dressed, eating breakfast—even though his life is far from ordinary.

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Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay in A24’s 'Room.' Photo by George Kraychyk. Courtesy of A24.

“It all seems totally normal to him, but then you’re getting hints that in the adult world, the world of his mother, there’s more tension and danger than he’s aware of,” said Abrahamson. “That’s really the condition of all parents and children—this is just an extreme version. The inside world is the face you show your child, even if you’re worrying about the outside world.”

The second half focuses on Jack’s and Ma’s freedom, which presents challenges for both that are as difficult to cope with as being confined in room. Jack must adapt to the sensory overload, frenetic pace and vast size of his strange new world. Ma struggles even more to adjust to a world she no longer recognizes. She mourns her stolen youth and changes in her family, like her parents' divorce, when she and Jack move in with her mother (Joan Allen). In addition, the media constantly hounds her.

As she begins to unravel, Jack becomes more comfortable in his surroundings. He bonds with Ma’s mother and her boyrfriend (Tom McCamus) and makes friends in the neighborhood. When the movie reaches a crisis point, mother and son reverse roles. Jack provides the strength Ma needs so they can both move forward and embrace their new lives.

Room opens in San Francisco on October 23.