Based on one of the longest-running New York Times bestsellers, THE GLASS CASTLE tells the story of Jeannette Walls' unconventional upbringing at the hands of her deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant parents, and her journey towards acceptance and fulfillment.
The Glass Castle, based on the memoir of the same name by Jeannette Walls, comes across as an offbeat coming-of-age story whose integrity is impeded by the need for closure. Real life doesn't work that way but movie-goers don't like loose ends and unresolved issues. By laminating Walls' story with a Hollywood sheen, the narrative climaxes in an artificial and contrived manner. The penultimate scene is so obviously scripted that its inclusion is damaging. That's too bad, because there are some effective individual scenes earlier in the proceedings.
Putting aside the ending, The Glass Castle remains flawed. The story is presented through the tired, unnecessary method of using flashbacks to set up the "present" time and place. When appropriate, this approach can add depth and meaning to a movie but it's superfluous in The Glass Castle. Why was it done this way? The cynic in me thinks maybe it was to get Oscar-winner Brie Larson on screen earlier. In a purely chronological representation of events, she wouldn't have shown up until past the halfway point. This way, she has a presence throughout the entire film.
Does the movie soften the violent and abusive tendencies of Jeannette's father, Max (brilliantly played by Woody Harrelson)? Probably. But reminiscences are like that. In addition to being unreliable when it comes to details, memory can round harsh edges and erase ugly scars. We gaze back through rose-colored glasses not objective lenses. Jeannette was obviously conflicted with respect to her father and that comes across in the film. But, perhaps because the movie doesn't want us to hate Max, the moments of gentleness and fatherly camaraderie are emphasized and the menacing episodes are downplayed.
Moving beyond the opening scenes, which transpire in 1989 New York City and have Larson playing a successful adult Jeannette, the starting point for the narrative is about 25 years earlier. Jeanette (played by Chandler Head and later by Ella Anderson) and her siblings, Lori, Brian, and Maureen, spend their time traveling from town-to-town, staying one step ahead of the bill collectors. Max, unable to hold down a job because of his drinking, is always on the move and his wife, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), goes along with him. She is willing to endure all manner of indignities as long as, when they stop, there's a place where she can set up her canvas and paints.
Eventually, the family puts down roots in rural West Virginia, not far from where Max grew up. For a while, he makes an effort to be a good father, even going so far as to give up booze and get a respectable job. But his efforts are fleeting and, when he again hits the bottle, the children make a pact to help each other get away as soon as the funds and opportunity are available. By the time Jeannette's moment to escape arrives, Max is reluctant to let her go. She eventually makes it to New York, starts a career as a gossip column writer, and becomes engaged to a financial analyst (Max Greenfield). Then, homeless and penniless, Max and Rose Mary follow.
A lot of the New York material doesn't work and perhaps that's why I wasn't captivated by Larson's understated portrayal. The "growing up" portions of The Glass Castle, on the other hand, have power and immediacy. Those have been massaged less by director Destin Daniel Cretton (who previously directed Larson in the more raw Short Term 12) and his co-adaptor, Andrew Lanham. Harrelson shines, exploring the Jekyll and Hyde aspects of Rex's personality. Naomi Watts does the best she can with an underwritten part. And Ella Anderson, the middle actress to play Jeanette, becomes the best thing about The Glass Castle with a heartbreakingly complex portrayal of a girl who simultaneously adores and fears her daddy.
Similarities to last year's Captain Fantastic may be coincidental but they're too strong to ignore (especially since two of the children from that film, Charlie Shotwell and Shree Crooks, have roles in this one) and The Glass Castle doesn't bear up well to the comparison. Nevertheless, enough of The Glass Castle works to prevent it from becoming an unbearable slog or feeling like an exercise in melodramatic manipulation. At its best, the humanity of the characters comes through and we feel for them. If this happened more often and the movie wasn't burdened by an unwieldy structure, it might have touched viewers as deeply as the book did those who read it. As it is, it's an Oscar-wannabe that didn't make the cut and is being released in mid-August hoping to find a small audience.