Every once in a while, you hear about a book that’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for what seems like forever, and if you’re anything like me, your first thought is, “I’ll just wait for the movie.”
That was not the case with Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir THE GLASS CASTLE, and I probably wouldn’t have had any interest in the book adaptation if not for the fact that it reunites Oscar winner Brie Larson with her Short Term 12 director, Destin Daniel Cretton. Then again, Cretton might not have even gotten this family drama made if not for the popularity of the book coupled with his ability to land Larson, who plays the author over a wide range of years.
The Glass Castle is very much a family drama with an emphasis on “drama,” because what Walls went through over the course of her childhood, as documented in the film, is not something every audience member will be able to relate to. And yet, there’s something about the situation in which the younger Jeanette and her siblings find themselves that you can completely believe.
The story begins with Larson’s Jeanette living in the New York of the ’80s, where she’s working at New York Magazine and engaged to financial analyst David (Max Greenfield). She’s also estranged from her parents, whom she spots rummaging through trash as her cab takes her home. For those who don’t know Walls’ book, this makes for an intriguing excuse to go back in time to see how each of them got there, and that’s exactly what happens.
As a young girl, Jeanette suffered from the negligence of her alcoholic father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and artist mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), who traipsed Jeanette and her siblings around the country, never staying anywhere long enough for the debt collectors to catch them. They also lived in such incredible poverty that at times, the kids don’t have anything to eat, and yet, they find a way to work as a family despite Rex’s growing moodiness and alcoholism. Indeed, Rex’s family in West Virginia, and especially his mother Erma, are far, far worse.
The most important thing to know going into The Glass Castle is that this isn’t fully Larson’s show. It’s as much and maybe even moreso Woody Harrelson’s movie to shine or shame, since he plays Jeanette’s father Rex in every single scene, often having to work with very young kids (who are all quite good). Harrelson frequently straddles the line between lovable crank and deplorable, manipulative drunk, and there are few actors who could pull off both with equal skill and not lose the audience completely.
Much of the plot is very dark and dreary, which is why it’s surprising how many touching moments are featured in the film. And yet, it may not have have been the best decision for Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham to tell Walls’ story in such a disjointed manner, because it takes a good hour before the movie finds its emotional core. That’s certainly not the fault of the two young actors playing Jeannette as a child, because the main reason the movie work is the groundwork laid by Chandler Head and Ella Anderson in the film’s flashbacks, which depict a wonderful relationship between father and daughter that’s simply heartbreaking to watch deteriorate.
The earlier scenes with Harrelson are so good that whenever the movie cuts back to “present day” in New York City, it leaves you wanting. There’s a distinct tonal switch whenever we see the older Jeanette trying to deal with her difficult parents, who are squatting on the Lower East Side. Maybe it’s due to Greenfield’s presence, but these scenes feel designed to soften the story with saccharine laughs, and frankly, they feel shoehorned into a far more important story.
Unless you’re completely oblivious to the world, you’ll realize this sort of poverty exists, and that it often leads to Rex’s type of alcoholism where the children wind up being neglected, deprived and even abused. It was brave for Walls to reveal this part of her life to the world, and even braver for Cretton and his cast to want to make a movie about it. There are subjects in The Glass Castle that are handled in such a blunt and direct way, rather than pussyfooting around the fact that this story is about Jeanette breaking the cycle of alcoholism and abuse that has made her father such a difficult drunk.
In that sense, Cretton proves himself to be a fine director, capable of coaxing strong performances out of his cast — especially the younger actors during the flashback sequences. However, his movie still suffers from questionable period costuming and an ill-advised attempt to age some of the teen cast into older incarnations of themselves. Larson is a good enough actor to be convincing as Jeanette across a couple of decades, but the actors playing her brother and sisters aren’t quite as strong, so they rely on hair and makeup that’s never very good.
That’s a fairly minor criticism of this movie, which is so focused on Jeanette and her father that by the time you get to the more dramatic scenes between Larson and Harrelson, you’re already in an emotional state that allows you to fully able to comprehend where the real Jeanette Walls was coming from when she decided to write the book. The actual home video of the Walls family that plays during the end credits drives home how well Cretton was able to capture them.
If nothing else, The Glass Castle will leave you interested in reading Walls’ book, which may be the most admirable achievement for any adaptation.
Running time: 127 minutes
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor