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Review: The Glass Castle (2017)

The Glass Castle (2017)

Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton

Premise: Adapted from the memoir by Jeannette Walls. A woman (Brie Larson) recalls living with her nomadic family. The father (Woody Harrelson) is obsessed with building a house of glass and mirrors but his alcoholism keeps the family in poverty.

What Works: The Glass Castle is primarily about the relationship between Jeannette Walls and her father Rex. Those two characters are presented as complex people through some terrific performances. The story is organized as a frame narrative with Brie Larson as Jeannette Walls in the present tense and child actors Chandler Head and Ella Anderson playing her in the past. All three actors do a great job and they are convincing as a single person at different stages in her life. Admirably, the filmmakers do not make the childhood version of Walls unnecessarily precocious. She is authentically a kid with a child’s anxieties and point of view. Larson gets the most complicated section of the story; her character has become a successful columnist and she is engaged to a Wall Street banker. This causes tension between Walls and her father but also within her own identity and this conflict is evident throughout Larson’s performance. Woody Harrelson is cast as Rex Walls and he is also quite good. Rex could very easily be a redneck caricature like the family in Million Dollar Baby but he’s more than that. He is clearly intelligent but hobbled by alcoholism and an inability to focus and Harrelson turns on the charm in a way that believably retains his daughter’s allegiance and the audience’s sympathies. This story of father and daughter gets at something profound; The Glass Castle is about the experience of feeling disappointment in your elders and coming to the realization that your parents might not be the people you thought they were. That theme is brought out in the editing of this film. The narrative leaps between past and present very skillfully. The edits are cued in a way that’s very cinematic but also enhances the story of the Walls family by juxtaposing important moments of the past in way that sheds new light on the present.

What Doesn’t: The filmmakers of The Glass Castle undermine the movie with sentimentality. This becomes an increasing problem for the film. The filmmakers want to deliver a saccharine and heartwarming feeling, especially in the ending. But that requires flattening all of the film’s complexity. The key to The Glass Castle is Jeanette Walls’ conflicted feelings about her father. She loves him but his destructive qualities are too significant to ignore. Rex and his wife were not simply absentminded or eccentric; they were terrible and neglectful parents and after Walls finally confronts her father about that fact the movie sends her on a mission of walking it back and achieving forgiveness. While reconciliation may be laudable there is a difference between the character forgiving her father and the movie doing so. During the children’s adolescence Rex becomes a monstrous figure who intends to keep his children living with him in the family’s dilapidated shack for the foreseeable future. The father never recovers from that and the attempts to stage a conciliatory conclusion come across disingenuous and forced. The Glass Castle focuses on the relationship between Jeanette Walls and her father to the exclusion of the rest of the family. Walls was one of four siblings and while they are in a significant portion of the movie we never get to know any of them in any depth. The brother and sisters don’t have defining traits and we don’t get any sense of their relationships with Rex or with each other. Also largely wasted in the film is Naomi Watts as Rosemary, the mother of the family. The film doesn’t assign her adequate responsibility for the family’s living conditions.

Bottom Line: The Glass Castle is a satisfying melodrama. It scratches at something profound about parent-child relationships but those ideas are compromised by the movie’s adherence to filmmaking conventions and its sentimentality. But the film works as a family drama.

Episode: #661 (August 20, 2017)