Review by Jacquelin Hipes
For those relying on trailers alone, The Glass Castle might strike potential audience members as this year’s Captain Fantastic. Focusing on fond family memories, it presents Jeanette Walls’ decision to move to New York City and lead a “normal” life as troubling in some way, as though the nomadic poverty of her childhood was more authentic. However the truth of her adolescence harbors a much darker, and more emotionally satisfying, story than the promotions would suggest.
We first meet Jeanette Walls (played from her teenage years onward by Brie Larson) over a fancy dinner, unironically asking the waiter to box up not just her leftovers, but those of her companions as well. It’s a faux pas which betrays that she has not always owned pearls and designer clothes and hints at an otherness behind her beautifully polished façade. Doggy bag in tow, she rides past two vagrants rummaging through trash during her cab ride home. Those transients are actually Jeanette’s parents, who later ask, straight-faced and slightly indignant, if their dumpster-diving lifestyle embarrasses her.
The film’s narrative shifts between Jeanette’s adult life as a gossip columnist and her childhood roaming the country as her family tries to stay one step ahead of bill collectors and the law. Her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) struggles to hold down a job and her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) breezes through life as a sunny, unemployed artist. Both believe in education via experience; their insistence on independence from a young age often blurs the line with reckless endangerment, like when Jeanette (played by Chandler Head and Ella Anderson for her adolescent years) suffers severe burns after trying to cook lunch for herself one day. At first Rex comes across as magnetic but strange, exerting an irresistible pull on his wife and four children. More than once we see that energy give way to cruelty, however, fueled by a dependence on alcohol that can swallow up the last bit of money set aside for food. Connecting episodes good and bad, a succession of run-down abandoned homes, and countless hungry nights is the promise of a glass castle: a fantastic palace Rex promises to build for his family, just as soon as they find the right place.
In New York City, Jeanette struggles with the love she still bears for both her parents, even as they question her new, stable life and threaten to disrupt it. As the elder Jeanette, Brie Larson captures the vulnerability of a child trapped between devotion and fear, as well as the hard-earned wisdom that comes from growing up in circumstances such as hers. Head and Anderson complete a lovely trifecta of performances, presaging both the commendable strengths and all-too human weaknesses in their grown counterpart. Naomi Watts’ Rose Mary often serves as the quiet, submissive partner to her husband. There is a steeliness to her, though, that plainly says she has chosen this unconventional life and this unorthodox husband. We may not understand her acceptance of the flaws inherent to both, but we are made to respect it.
That Woody Harrelson shines beside two excellent performances is only further evidence of the strength of his own. Rex is a distasteful man. He drinks too much, endangers his children under the guise of educating them, and consistently fails in his duties as a parent. With an unforgiving script or less nuanced performance he could easily become the villain opposite Larson’s heroine. Instead he gives glimpses of the demons that have made him what he is, more and more as the Walls children grow up and begin to leave home, without ever leaning on them for unearned sympathy. His is a sad portrait of a man filled with love for his family yet, with the rare exception, incapable of harnessing that emotion to better their lives. Although it’s a little early to start narrowing the field, one hopes that Harrelson will be remembered once awards season rolls around.
As mentioned above the script by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham, adapted from the real Jeanette Walls’ memoir, refuses to turn away from the darkness in what is ultimately a story about acceptance and forgiveness. There is also enough humor to sufficiently diffuse the rather heavy subject matter at welcome intervals. It does have a slightly streamlined feel to it, as if certain separate episodes have been combined into one, or details have been dropped in service to the whole. Cretton also directs, taking full advantage of the beautiful countryside that surrounds the Walls’ dilapidated homesteads.
The Glass Castle is oftentimes a deeply uncomfortable film to watch. It raises questions about the nature of familial love and forgiveness with a lens easily turned on our own families, no matter how well-balanced they may look in comparison. That one can leave the theater feeling content instead of depressed is a testament not only to the craftsmanship on display throughout the film, but also the resilience of Jeanette and her family in such extraordinary circumstances.
The interview below is from Susan Kamyab: