Film Review: “The Glass Castle” is Only Half Full

The Glass Castle (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2017) 2 out of 4 stars.

Film poster: “The Glass Castle”

The third feature film from Destin Daniel Cretton (director of the very fine Short Term 12), The Glass Castle comes with a strong literary pedigree in the form of the best-selling memoir, of the same name, by gossip-columnist-turned-author Jeannette Walls, as well as a robust ensemble cast that includes three actors at the top of their game: Brie Larson (Room), Woody Harrelson (The Edge of Seventeen) and Naomi Watts (The Book of Henry). Unfortunately, it also comes with a story in which we are meant to observe abominable parenting and then forgive that behavior because, well, the perpetrators are colorful. I have not read the source material, but I hope it does not romanticize familial dysfunction and addiction as much as does its cinematic adaptation. A drunken father consistently spending food money on booze is very hard for this reviewer to tolerate, along with the extreme neglect and abuse he inflicts on his four children. Sure, he can be charming when he wants to be, but there is a tonal imbalance on screen that the movie never overcomes.

I’m not saying the story should not be told; quite the contrary. Rather, I find that, as presented, the trajectory of the children’s relationship to their father strains credulity: plenty of offspring have broken ties with their parents for less. That said, the details of the Walls family are not without interest. Through a combination of poverty, mental illness, alcoholism and a desire to live off the grid (recalling last year’s far superior Captain Fantastic), Rex (Harrelson) and Rose (Watts) Walls effectively behave like itinerant laborers, though always with pretensions to something grander. Indeed, Rose is a painter, and not without a certain broad artistic education, while Rex is, at least in his own mind, an architect and builder. The reality of their situation, however, is that they are dirt poor, and Rex is unable to keep a job (mostly because of drinking and fighting). Finally, out of desperation, they settle down in Welch, West Virginia – Rex’s hometown – where things improve, for a while, especially once Rex temporarily discovers sobriety.

From L to R: Max Greenfield as “David,” Brie Larson as “Jeannette Walls,” and Woody Harrelson as “Rex Walls” in THE GLASS CASTLE. Photo by Jake Giles Netter. ©Lionsgate

This is not really the tale of Rex and Rose, however, but rather of Jeannette (Larson), the brightest and most motivated – though not the eldest – of the four offspring. We cut back and forth between the “present” of 1989, where Jeannette is a successful writer at New York magazine, engaged to David (Max Greenfield, Hello, My Name Is Doris) an investment banker, and the not-so-distant past in Welch (and before), during which various other actresses (all very good) incarnate the kids: Ella Anderson (The Boss), as tween Jeannette, and Chandler Head (also The Boss), as the youngest Jeannette, are especially noteworthy. Since, by 1989, two of Jeannette’s siblings have also migrated to the Big Apple, so have Mom and Dad. We first glimpse them, courtesy of prim and proper Jeannette, driving by in a taxi, as they dumpster-dive. Plus ça change …

For the rest of the movie, we follow Jeannette’s struggle to define herself as an adult in both opposition and harmony to her parents’ legacy. The question I beg to ask is why Rex and Rose should matter to the adult Jeannette. True, it is not as if the life she has built in New York is particularly meaningful – and her fiancé, sweet though he is, is clearly not right for her – but given the extreme cruelty we have earlier witnessed, why do we need to care about the opinions of two such damaged (and damaging) souls as Rex and Rose Walls. Jeannette Walls, herself, is free to make any choices she wants vis-à-vis her flawed parents; it’s not my business to judge her. But as a movie viewer, I am left confused by everyone’s decisions, and the swelling musical chords that underline Rex’s quaintness, even as he behaves atrociously, do not help. Not for me, such halcyon abuse. Still, see it for the performances, if for no other reason. It’s a great cast – although no one, even in childhood, looks as hungry, dirty and/or sick as the script would have us believe – and there are many fine moments of genuine, moving rapport between them. I just wish the film did them greater justice.

Chandler Head as “Youngest Jeannette” and Naomi Watts as “Rose Mary Walls” in THE GLASS CASTLE. Photo by Jake Giles Netter. ©Lionsgate

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. He is the lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a regular film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; an occasional writer for the magazine bmoreart.com; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice."
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