So, I watched the Oscars last week. Which introduced me to Brie Larson’s award-winning performance in Room. Which inspired me not only to watch the film (and marvel at not only Larson’s performance but also that of her young co-star Jacob Tremblay) but also to read the novel and watch pretty much every interview with the cast I could find. I may be slightly obsessive.
It is difficult for me to figure out exactly why the story of Room captivated me as much as it did. I mean, Brie Larson’s performance is phenomenal, but the novel and the film both deal with some graphic and traumatic material. If you aren’t familiar with the premise, Room tells the story of five-year-old Jack and his relationship with “Ma,” whose real name we never learn in the novel. Jack (our point-of-view character), has spent his entire life in a place he knows as“Room.” From Jack’s perspective, room is the world. It is a good world. He has his friends like “Bed” and “Lamp” and “Table,” and he has a very set, normal routine. It takes a bit before we realize that “Room” is in fact a prison. It is the garden shed of a man who kidnapped “Ma” as a teenager and Jack is the outcome of her sexual assault.
Without given too much away, the pair eventually do escape and the rest of the novel is a fascinating exploration of the most mundane elements of the world, encountered by someone who has no frame of reference for them. Escaping from “Room” and encountering the world for the first time is the real trauma for Jack, not the imprisonment itself. He is confused by colors beyond what he experienced in Room, and going to a mall becomes like something out of a horror movie. We soon come to realize that there is a cost—there is something that Jack must give up—in order to experience all the wonderful things he has been deprived of for so long. He must give up the innocence, the simplicity, we might even say the perceived safety of “Room,” in order to experience life as a fully realized human being.
For all that “Room” deals with difficult subject matter and has an incredibly extreme premise at its core, there is something utterly universal in its message. Not only in Ma and Jack’s relationship as a universal reflection on parenting in all its complexities–without ever veering into the sentimental. But also in the whole question of what it means for each of us to step out of the simplicity and innocence of childhood as we grow up. Upon his escape from “Room,” Jack does indeed encounter much that pushes him to the limits of comprehension, but he also gradually discovers exciting things that he can take delight in–ice cream, and dogs, and playing ball in the back yard. When Jack and Ma have the opportunity to return to “Room” one last time, Jack realizes it is far smaller than he remembered, asking his mother “Did it shrink?”
While “Room” is most explicitly a meditation on what it means for us to “grow up” and move beyond the limited scope of our childhood understanding, I think there is also a more subtle challenge to how we approach the issue of faith. There is something relatively “safe” about faith in an understandable, controllable God who sits around rewarding good people and punishing bad people. If we offer the correct input–are decent people, good citizens, nice to one another–we will be counted as “good people” in the grand cosmic scheme of the universe. And yet, I cannot help but feel that God as revealed in the Christian narrative is a God who cannot be contained in such a clear-cut, rational box. The story of the Prodigal Son, which we heard in as our Lectionary Gospel just this past week, confronts us with the image of God as the father who runs out and embraces us even when we fundamentally do not deserve it. God offends our (at times) limited human understanding of what is “just” or “fair”, what is “right” or “wrong.” God cannot be controlled by our behavior because God loves us wildly, radically and somewhat absurdly, if we are honest about it.
We can try to lock God into boxes and limited categories of “righteousness” of our own making. But it seems if we do that, we settle for a spiritual reality that is far more impoverished that what God would wish to offer us. We all need to break out of “Room” and risk the greatness of the world.