Growing up in a dysfunctional family, Jeannette Walls had to grow up very quickly. In fact, much of The Glass Castle finds Ms. Walls in a state of desire for stability. It’s why she puts up with a fairly unsympathetic significant other. Walls’ story is one that demanded to be told. After publishing her memoir in 2005, Walls found success as a best selling writer. Her book, would soon be adapted into a film. As a film, The Glass Castle is about as emotionally impactful as it can get. It features some stunning performances including some career best work from Woody Harrelson. The film tugs at the heartstrings. And, although it doesn’t always earn that emotional impact it’s going for, it’s a harrowing story that is hard to forget.
The Glass Castle stars Oscar winner Brie Larson as Walls. The film flashes back and forth between her childhood and adult life as she copes with the mental abuse of a dysfunctional upbringing. Harrelson plays her father, Rex. Rex is reckless, manipulative and a textbook alcoholic. Throughout the film, Rex has two sides. He is a mean and vindictive drunk, but he also a dad who attempts to teach his children valuable life lessons. Although, his attempts are misguided, he means well. His wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) is also a victim of his abuse. While his abuse towards his children inflicts their psyches, his abuse towards Rose is violent and physical.
There are sublime performances to be found in this film. Chief among them is close to career best work by Harrelson. Rex is broken, but his tough exterior and desire to care for his children. He wants them to beat a rigged system. Yet, as we see throughout the film, his children begin to realize his wild charm they found as children, doesn’t carry over into adolescence. Rex is a very cinematic character and Harrelson is able to pull it off with zero speed bumps.
Even though the film chronicles a long period of time in the Walls family timeline, the three actresses who play out central character are all excellent. But of course, Brie Larson is a tour de force as Jeannette. Larson is able to convey such a wide range of emotion and adds another excellent performance to her incredible body of work. Jeannette’s desire for stability is one you can tell doesn’t fit her. Even with a steady job, a successful fiance (Max Greenfield) Jeannette’s body language alone has some regret. This is a sentiment that Larson is able to play so well without any dialogue
The film is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton who previously directed Larson in the brilliant Short Term 12. This movie isn’t nearly the quality of that one. However, Cretton is able to bring a particular sensibility to his films. Cretton’s focus shows the relatable side of these characters. He chooses to focus on the sympathetic approach, one which apparently deviates from the tone of Walls’ memoir. I haven’t read the book. Where Cretton veers a bit off path with this film, is the yearning for a emotional heart tug. The material certainly has the inherent ability to have a strong emotional impact and Cretton sometime doesn’t let it happen naturally. Instead, he attempts to force a particular feeling on the audience. The script feels a bit corny at certain points.
That is not to say the film is without any emotional heft. When Cretton steps back and lets the scene speak for itself is where The Glass Castle really shines. However, the film is consistent in its moving story. It is gripping and occasionally, yet wonderfully raw with its characters passion. Even though the movie is a feel good story, the films conclusion, which is one of redemption and understanding, feels like it really doesn’t fit the films darker themes. In that sense, the film clashes with its own tone.
There’s enough about The Glass Castle to like. Some may find no uplifting qualities within the films subject matter. It’s dark, and Cretton makes a bold choice to make it a movie about forgiveness and understanding. As we see more of Rex, it’s hard to find any reason to forgive him for what he put his children through. What makes that theme work so well is the way Cretton treats the characters and shows their bond as a family. It is a dysfunctional bond, but who are we to judge the way in which a family wishes to be close. In this case, Rex chooses to give his kids a non-traditional upbringing and The Glass Castle balances both of these aspects of its true life story well. It is a film sure to stick with you after the credits roll.