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‘Room’ assesses our perceptions of reality

“Room” (2015). Cast: Brie Larson, Jason Tremblay, Sean Bridgers, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, Tom McCamus, Wendy Crewson, Amanda Brugel, Joe Pingue, Cas Anvar, Randal Edwards. Director: Lenny Abrahamson. Screenplay: Emma Donoghue. Book: Emma Donoghue, Room. Web site. Trailer.

When it comes to understanding our existence, most of us probably believe we have a good handle on the subject. But do we? Are our perceptions of reality on target, or are they skewed by faulty or incomplete beliefs? And how do we correct such misperceptions (or would we even want to)? Those are among the thorny philosophical questions raised in the new suspenseful thriller, “Room.”

Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son, Jack (Jason Tremblay), lead a rather unconventional existence. Their world is considerably smaller than what most of us are accustomed to, living their lives within the confines of a 10-foot by 10-foot backyard garden shed, a “home” Joy has generically designated “Room.” Their only view of the outside is through an overhead skylight, one that provides little illumination – and an even more limited glimpse of what lies beyond.

Despite her confinement, Joy is aware of the wider reality outside, having been part of it for the first 17 years of her life. But Jack is totally unaware of it, having been born into the captivity of Room, spending his entire life within its confines. All he knows about existence is what he has experienced firsthand, what his mother has told him and what he has seen on a television with spotty reception.

So how have Joy and Jack come to live this life? Seven years ago, while Joy was walking home, she met a middle-aged man who claimed he needed assistance with his sick dog. Ever the Samaritan, the cheery, eager teenager agreed to help him, not realizing that she was about to be kidnapped, taken hostage by a captor whom she would come to know as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Joy’s abductor proceeded to lock her in the shed, which had been fitted with such basics as running water, heat and a kitchenette. But, despite these minimal accommodations, Joy was essentially caged, confined behind an electronically coded door that only her captor knew how to open. Thus began her harrowing imprisonment, a traumatic experience that would lead to Jack’s birth two years later.

Strange as it might sound, though, Joy does all she can to give Jack as “normal” an existence as possible. She endeavors to remain upbeat, striving to be the best mother she can be to her young son. In fact, Joy’s love for Jack is one of the few things that keeps her going under such trying circumstances.

But spending all of one’s time in close quarters with an inquisitive youngster in his formative years can be challenging. When confronted with endless questions about the nature of existence, Joy makes up stories to address Jack’s inquiries, partly to appease him and partly to make life sound magical enough to give him a positive outlook about it. These fantastic yarns may not be entirely truthful, but she hopes they’re sufficient to satisfy Jack’s curiosity under such trying and unusual circumstances. That’s quite a tall order. After all, how realistic is it to expect someone to be able to accurately describe the nature of the world at large to someone who only knows about existence based on his experience of the limitations of Room?

Besides caring for Jack and giving him as good an upbringing as possible, Joy has another equally important item on her agenda – figuring out how to escape. However, given the degree of control Old Nick wields over Joy and Jack, combined with the meticulous thoroughness of his plans for keeping them captive, that’s easier said than done.

To find a way out of these circumstances, Joy will need to get creative. But, even if she manages to devise a successful escape plan, then what? Will she be able to liberate both herself and her son, or will she be forced into making a difficult choice? Moreover, even if she and/or Jack manage to escape, will they be able to deal with their newfound emancipation? Given that Joy has not experienced such freedom for a long time – and that Jack never has – will they be able to cope with their liberation? Indeed, will their release live up to hoped-for expectations?

In that regard, this film provides viewers with an insightful look at how our beliefs about the world ultimately come to shape it. This is the fundamental essence of the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the existence we experience, no matter how extensive or limited it may be. And this is just as true for Joy and Jack in their experiences as it is for the rest of us.

This is particularly intriguing where Jack is concerned, given that his entire experience of the world is based on the confines of Room. His reality springs forth from his perceptions of, and his beliefs about, that very limited space, essentially the totality of what he considers to constitute existence. His ability to envision a reality that goes beyond the manifestation of Room is effectively constrained by his beliefs. The prospect of there being something more to the world is almost impossible for him to fathom, particularly when Joy tries speaking to him about the existence of what lies beyond the shed’s walls.

In many ways, Jack’s experience parallels that of a group of prisoners in Plato’s famous cave story. According to this legendary allegory, the prisoners have lived their entire lives chained inside a cave, effectively unable to move. They face a blank cave wall, watching shadows projected onto it from people and objects that pass in front of a fire located behind them. These shadowy images are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality, providing them with a fundamentally incomplete depiction of existence. Plato observes that this distorted view does not present the entire picture, that there’s more to reality than the limited impressions provided by the shadows. Thus someone who is able to see beyond this limitation, to see the broader spectrum of the nature of reality, is able to gain a fuller appreciation of the true character of existence.

In the cave scenario, the prisoners’ perceptions of the shadows temper their beliefs, which, in turn, govern what they consider constitutes reality. So it is with Jack, too (and for all of us, for that matter). Thus, if we suspect that our view of existence is somehow incomplete, we should examine the beliefs we hold about our reality, for it may expose an inherent limitation that prevents us from seeing the bigger picture.

This is a key challenge for Joy in her efforts to prepare Jack for what to expect about the outside world if they successfully manage to escape their captivity. Based on his experience, Jack has become galvanized in his beliefs about what constitutes existence, especially in light of the stories his mother has told him, which effectively solidified the character of his prevailing outlook. If Jack is to cope with emancipation, he’ll have to address something as potentially limiting as the confines of Room – the limitations of his own beliefs.

This is something we all often wrestle with when looking to change the character of our existence. Our beliefs can become stubbornly entrenched, frequently enduring even when they no longer effectively serve us. Such persistence is in many ways what makes the “certainty” and “continuity” of physical existence possible, but it’s also what might prevent it from changing, something we should be aware of when we look to alter our reality.

The removal of belief limitations is also crucial for Joy in formulating her escape plans. Considering the obstacles she faces, she’ll need to get creative to intentionally deceive and/or overpower her captor. This requires pushing the envelope of possibilities, something that may become particularly difficult under the prevailing atmosphere of limitation under which she lives.

But, as noted earlier, even if Joy’s escape plans were to succeed, what would happen when she and/or Jack found themselves on the outside? Having spent so much time in an existence inherently characterized by extreme limitation, would they be able to handle a reality with endless possibilities open to them?

One might think that having seemingly limitless choices available to us would be highly desirable. However, some might readily view this prospect as patently overwhelming. When we’re accustomed to having our routines and accommodations clearly spelled out for us, we can take comfort in that familiarity. But, if that certainty were suddenly replaced by a broad palette of undefined options, we might easily find such ambiguity daunting. In many ways, some might even long for what they left behind, a prospect essentially embodying the notion of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”

In light of that, then, reintegrating into a world of choice may necessitate making some significant adjustments, especially where our beliefs are concerned. It would require becoming aware of the potential benefits afforded by having a range of possibilities available to us, especially in terms of how preferable it is to not having such options open. Such a realization could allow us to discard our outmoded mindset, enabling us to adopt a new outlook for reinventing ourselves and materializing a new reality. For those who have experienced painful physical and psychological ordeals like Joy and Jack, such a metamorphosis might be just what’s required for promoting the much-needed healing for overcoming those traumas. But, if such a positive transformation is to occur, we must always bear in mind that the change begins with us, particularly when it comes to the beliefs we use to manifest our experience.

“Room” is an engaging, suspenseful thriller about coping with trying circumstances, especially when it comes to the bond between mother and child and the lengths she’ll go to in protecting him. The film’s outstanding lead performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay captivate throughout, despite some occasionally uneven pacing (especially in the picture’s sometimes-meandering second hour). As one of the more unusual releases in recent years, this offering won’t appeal to everyone, but, for those who appreciate cinematic experiences outside the mainstream, this is one worth screening.

The film has already netted three award nominations, earning accolades for best lead actress, best editing and best first screenplay in the Independent Spirit Awards competition, with more almost assuredly to come. Look for Larson, in particular, to capture more honors for her efforts, as she has become a leading contender in this year’s awards competitions.

Our freedom of choice is one of our fundamental metaphysical birthrights, as well as a precious commodity to be carefully protected. Unfortunately, our awareness and appreciation of that capacity might not become apparent until it’s seemingly no longer available to us, and restoring our faith in and reliance on it may not happen as readily as we might think it would. By establishing, monitoring and preserving beliefs that support such awareness and appreciation, we increase the likelihood that we’ll be able to successfully tap into, and make use of, this power when we need it most.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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