There’s a moment in “Room,” the extraordinary new drama from director Lenny Abrahamson (“Frank”), when Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) doubts everything she’s ever done in regard to her young son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), with whom she was locked in a small shed for seven years. Having escaped to safety, Joy is being drilled on camera by a Diane Sawyer-type, whose toughest question is why Joy didn’t try to release 5-year-old Jack—who was born in the shed—much sooner. “Did you ever think that might have been better for him?” the interviewer asks. Joy is dumbfounded, her self-perception as a mom upended in an instant.
The gentle brilliance of both this film and Emma Donoghue’s source novel is that it uses a captive situation—fertile ground for a thriller to evaluate gradually, sometimes devastatingly, the countless nuances of motherhood. When Joy was kidnapped and locked in the shed by the man who would eventually impregnate her (and who maintains the shed’s plumbing, electricity, and food supply), it seems she was barely out of high school, her forthcoming mom duties drawn from instinct and whatever she gathered from mothers like hers (Joan Allen).
But when we meet Joy, and through roughly the first half of the film, she seems like a surefire—if short-tempered—ace, with her and Jack’s daily routine down to a science, and her radar for what might contaminate their space on high alert. And yet, that all of that denotes strong parenting might have just been this critic’s take.
In fact, how one reacts to the interviewer’s question might reveal things not about Joy, but about himself or herself. Does the suggestion come as a shock, as surely no mother would send off her cub? Or had the thought occurred to you, too—that Joy making a massive sacrifice and facing loneliness would have been the true measure of maternal goodness? Since “Room” begins by exposing us only to Joy and Jack, and solidifying their bond (both Larson and Tremblay are magnificent), these questions become that much more layered. But that complexity, conveyed with faultless grace and zero schmaltz, is precisely what locks you in.
4 reels out of 4
Now playing at The Ritz Five
Ian McKellen gives the performance of his career in “Mr. Holmes,” a beautiful mystery that tells a fictional story, yet plays it utterly straight. Reunited with his “Gods and Monsters” director Bill Condon, McKellen is indeed Sherlock, but now aging and struggling with the demons of his past. The film thrives on the sense of memory being essential for a sleuth, and McKellen’s own age surely adds poignancy to his work. ■