The Glass Castle
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
The Glass Castle is the based on real life story of the Walls family. Dad avoided work if he could and Mom was a (non-working) artist, so the family of six was constantly on the move from town to town, living on the cheap until Dad got fired from his latest job or got them into trouble with the locals. They would then move on to the next town and start over again. This resulted in a challenging childhood for the four children who lived largely without running water and electricity, sometimes went days without food and saw whatever money the family did have get sacrificed to their father’s alcoholism.
The Glass Castle (117 minutes, plus four more minutes of footage of the actual Walls family at the start of the end credits), based on a 2005 memoir of the same name by daughter Jeannette Walls, is a sometimes harrowing, sometimes nostalgic look back at this life and the effect it had on the (now grown-up) children. The film is told in flashbacks as an adult Jeannette, now a writer for the New York Times engaged to a successful financial advisor (played by Max Greenfield from Fox’s New Girl, who is unfortunately not given much more than clichés to work with), looks back on her unorthodox upbringing, mainly focusing on her complicated relationship with her father (Woody Harrelson).
The film’s tone is very uneven. Sometimes it is a nostalgic look at unpredictable, but loving, parents. At others, it is the harrowing account of four children who sometimes had to parent themselves because their father was too drunk and their mother either would not or could not stand up to him (there are several moments where third oldest child Jeannette takes care of her siblings and her parents).
The mother, Rose Mary (played by an underutilized Naomi Watts) does not seem particularly interested in being a mother. Her painting is her biggest priority. The father, Rex, veers wildly between loving and cruel. When he is sober, he is kind, but selfish. When he is drunk, he is cruel and self-pitying (there are some effective scenes where young Jeannette (a very good Ella Anderson) begs him to stop drinking so the family will have enough money for food). The grown-up Walls children appear to remember their father (he died in 1994) based only on the good times. That is understandable but, based only on this film, it was hard for me to do that.
The flashback sequences, carried by Harrelson and Anderson are the best parts of the film. The present day story does not work quite as well. Despite the very talented Brie Larson (a Best Actress Oscar winner in 2016 for Room) starring as adult Jeannette, those scenes don’t have the dramatic heft that they should. The whole subplot about her being scared to tell her parents she’s getting married feels like it belongs in a different movie. The point about the Walls parents (especially Rex) having very specific, unshakable beliefs that they tried to pass on to their kids was made effectively enough in the flashback scenes. But it feels beaten into the ground here.
I’m pretty sure adult Jeannette is rebelling against her parents, but I’m not sure if that is supposed to be a positive or a negative. The film seems to want to have it both ways. Harrelson is good at playing a difficult man who maybe could have been a great father under better circumstances. But at times it felt like the movie was saying he was a great father and that was hard for me to believe based on the evidence presented.
As a whole, The Glass Castle is a decent film with a better (and probably much shorter) film tucked away inside it. It is an occasionally disturbing story made more disturbing because it is unclear what the filmmakers’ message really is (it was directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton, who also directed Larson in the excellent 2013 film Short Term 12). Is it condoning Rex and Rose Mary’s parenting style by saying they did the best they could under the circumstances? Or is it blaming them for creating those circumstances? I am not sure and that tonal confusion makes the film a hard pill to swallow.
Note: The film’s title refers to a house that Harrelson’s character dreams of building for his family.
3 out of 5
Brie Larson as Adult Jeannette
Ella Anderson as Young Jeannette
Woody Harrelson as Rex
Naomi Watts as Rose Mary
Max Greenfield as David
Charlie Shotwell as Young Brian
Sadie Sink as Young Lori
Shree Crooks as Young Maureen
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenplay by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham