Journalist Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir of her troubled childhood, The Glass Castle, was one of the biggest literary juggernauts of the aughts, so a big screen adaptation was probably a foregone conclusion. The cinematic depiction of Walls’ look back on life with an alcoholic father and the bonds shared with her similarly suffering siblings is the second collaboration between writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton and actress Brie Larson. Having already worked together on a moving depiction of the psychological scars of child abuse (the resounding, underrated Short Term 12), the pair proves to be a perfect fit for Walls’ source material, treating it with respect, dignity, and delicacy, but occasionally smoothing out some of the memoir’s harsher, more depressing edges to make it all go down a bit easier on screen than it does on the page.
The Glass Castle shifts shrewdly, logically, and effortlessly between 1989 – where an adult Jeannette (Larson) works as a New York City daily gossip columnist – and memories of her tumultuous early years. Shaken by the sight of seeing her parents – the hard drinking but borderline brilliant Rex (Woody Harrelson) and artistic mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) – scrounging in dumpsters and squatting in a hovel on the Lower East Side, Jeannette reminisces on growing up poor and essentially on the run across rural America.
Air Force veteran Rex is all but permanently pickled, making consistent employment nearly impossible. Rose Mary acts oblivious to any problems, content to live with the struggle because she thinks it makes her paintings more insightful. Middle child Jeanette (played by Chandler Head and Ella Anderson at younger ages), her older sister Lori (Olivia Kate Rice and Sadie Sink in childhood, Sarah Snook as an adult), her brother Brian (Iain Armitage and Charlie Shotwell in youth and Josh Caras as an adult), and younger sister Maureen (Eden Grace Redfield and Shree Crooks as kids, Brigette Lundy-Paine as a grown-up) all agree to disagree. Whenever Max and Rose Mary deplete their resources in one location and bill collectors come calling, they pack up and move to another town, the cycle playing out over and over again with almost no deviation across decades. They’ll arrive in a new rural community with hearts full of hope and promise, but Rex will invariably screw things up or never make any money, and they’ll be on the road again. After years of being shifted around and Rex’s attempts to stay sober fail, the siblings made a pact that they would help each other escape their parents’ self-destructive cycles once everyone is old enough to leave and strike out on their own.
Although it’s being marketed as another star vehicle for Oscar winner Larson, The Glass Castle spends more time in the earlier years of Jeannette and her siblings, with all of the younger actors turning in tremendous performances across the board. I’d estimate that adult Jeannette and her attempts to tell her father that she’s about to marry an investment banker (Max Greenfield) comprises only about a third of Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham’s adaptation. It’s a smart move because adult Jeannette’s problems aren’t as interesting or visceral as examining the siblings’ tenuous and stagnant relationship to Rex. All of the rich character building contained within the story happens in these early, formative sequences, and to focus on the film’s present would be to miss the point of Wells’ memoir entirely.
Larson might get top billing, but it’s Harrelson who stands out the most in The Glass Castle. Rex would appear to almost any outsider in his world as a loutish drunk who spends more time giving the finger to authority figures than he does providing for his family or taking care of his own health. It’s implied that Rex has a dark childhood secret (one that’s made more explicit by an extended trip to his West Virginia hillbilly mother’s house) and there’s clearly some battle scarring that has never healed or been addressed. He’s not a survivalist or trying to make his family into hearty souls through his irreverent life views. He’s just a person who can’t see that he’s psychologically damaging everyone around him. Rex thinks he’s some kind of genius, and while he has Rose Mary fooled, everyone else sees him as damaged, and their familial dynamic as unsustainable and completely messed up. Rex isn’t a misunderstood hero or villain, but an easily recognized, unrepentant alcoholic with occasional flashes of humanity, warmth and clarity. Although Rex never strikes his kids, his actions are still psychologically abusive, and as such, the children are well within their rights to hate him. Harrelson imbues Rex with charisma, menace, and painful humanity to show why his kids can’t fully abandon him, even in their adult years. It’s a wrought and conflicted relationship that only works thanks to Cretton’s firm filmmaking stance and Harrelson’s delicate, nuanced performance. Harrelson’s work is a pitch-perfect blend of grandiosity, rage, guilt, and self-loathing that anyone who has lived with an alcoholic family member will see as painfully realistic.
Larson effectively portrays adult Jeannette’s conflicted feelings about trying to cut her parents out of her life, but it’s made more effective because the kids playing younger versions of her character are just as excellent. Similarly, Snook, Caras, and Paine add a lot as the siblings Jeannette can confide in more than her fiancé. Harrelson’s performance remains at a consistent pitch throughout, but Watts has the only role that’s improved by the character’s depiction in the story’s present tense. When her children were young, Rose Mary seemed aloof and slow to make any sudden changes, no matter how awful Rex got. A tense lunch between Jeannette and Rose Mary in New York is one of the best scenes in the film because of how Watts emphatically makes it known that she never plans to leave or abandon her husband despite every amount of evidence suggesting she should. It’s the best role Watts has been given in quite some time, and her efforts help to enrich the family dynamic more and more as the film goes along. It’s a slow, patient performance in a part that could have gone over the top and off the rails in lesser hands.
Cretton also switches up his directorial style for his third feature. Largely abandoning the hand-held immediacy of Short Term 12 (save for a few moments here and there), Cretton and cinematographer Brett Pawlak opt for longer, more fluid takes and edits only when absolutely necessary. This approach does take away somewhat from the overall grittiness of Walls’ source material, but it’s also stunningly cinematic and surprisingly moving in its own way. The soaring score from Joel P. West is nice, but leaned on a bit too heavily and unsubtly at a few key moments. Visually and dramatically, The Glass Castle is at its best when it’s not trying to revel in melodramatic bombast, and thankfully it doesn’t lapse into such territory often. While Cretton is trying to deliver as polished of a studio project as he can out of such challenging material, he’s also keen to remind viewers that the people these characters are based on actually exist and are more than cinematic figureheads and signposts for larger, easy to discern themes. It’s a nice balance of well constructed drama and real life suffering.
Is The Glass Castle essential viewing?
Yes. I would hesitate to call it an uplifting or inspirational film, but it’s certainly a satisfying one that captures the essence of its bestselling source material beautifully.
The Glass Castle opens Friday, August 11, 2017 at Cineplex locations. Check their website for more information.