Author Jeannette Walls best selling memoir is brought to life in the big screen adaptation of ‘The Glass Castle’. A young girl who is the second of four children comes of age in a dysfunctional family of nonconformist nomads with a mother (Naomi Watts) who’s an eccentric artist and an alcoholic father (Woody Harrelson) who would stir the children’s imagination with hope as a distraction to their poverty and crumbling pieces from within. Years later, Jeannette recalls and confronts the past that has shaped the woman who is anything but similar to the ideals that she was raised upon. Now with a loving boyfriend and well paying job, Jeannette looks back with cynicism at a memorable childhood that alluded her. ‘The Glass Castle’ is directed and adapted by Destin Daniel Cretton, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some adult language and smoking.
Very few films feel like they have the kind of personal touch that ‘The Glass Castle’ has on that of its penning author. After all, she experienced these things first-hand, so every kind of experience that the movie takes us through feels dependent upon the cast of characters who soak in the exchange of awkwardness between them, and articulately present and define when that line of wrong has been crossed. As far as family films go, this was a starting, eye-opening experience for the kinds of effects that one person can have on a family, creating a chain reaction that lasts a lifetime. Cretton’s film feels like it speaks volumes to the idea that we only get one chance at this thing, so we better get it straight while we can. Throw in four children on top of it, and the consequences of one man with a load of personal demons inside of him feels even more effective and even valuable because he speaks and acts for all of them. I found this film to be good, but not great, and there’s a few reasons for that final reaction, but most of them deal with the kind of misguided approach that the screenplay takes to adapting the fragile source material.
Attitude is everything in a movie like this, so when a film that has all of these terrible things that these kids have to go through because of their radical parents and their unorthodox style of living, the choice to accommodate them with forced humor feels terribly irresponsible. The whole film isn’t like this of course, but from the very start of this movie I sensed a great danger for these kids and this family even if the family and the movie haven’t figured out that revelation yet. There’s a cheesy musical score by composer Joel P. West that offers these light supple tones that feel so out of place that they couldn’t be any more opposite of what transpires before our eyes. Like i said, this does improve with greater urgency as the film chugs along, but from this intro in the first act early on, too many people could be getting the wrong message about the importance that the right mood plays on this story that if done correctly could send goosebumps into moviegoers and hook them into these problems from the very get-go of this movie.
The story is presented with two running timelines, past and present, that dive into the kind of cause-and-effects that Jeannette’s current attitude towards her Father in particularly has played into. For me, the more well-rounded and complete aspect of the movie definitely deals with the past, as it is in that part of the story where we not only spend 6/8’s of the movie’s two hour runtime, but also where the long term setups in foreshadowing lie. It feels like we are watching this family who are a danger to themselves play out a worst case scenario every time on the screen, but the disposition of being a kid growing up with an alcoholic Father hit a few notes for me that were all too close to home. Because of the uneven nature of how the past and present are depicted in sequencing, the current timeline with Brie Larson can sometimes feel like the speedbump that chimes in anytime the story is beginning to get good. There is a solid layering of dramatic pull and tension in this film, and those aspects in trauma force these children to grow up a lot quicker than they probably had hoped. The past is thought of like a ghost ravaging in the winds of change here, and it supplants more proof that who we are destined to become relies heavily on the ideals and morals of the way we are raised, something that Walls as an author humbles us with time-and-time again throughout the film’s complex psychological resonance within our leading lady.
With the ending, I feel like too much in the material was contradictory towards the previous 90% of the movie that showed us how appalling that Harrelson’s character was as the Father. The film builds up this repertoire that we know will eventually lead to Jeannette’s emancipation from her struggling family, then spins an unexpected left turn in the film’s closing moments by telling us to cherish the man who for all purposes serves as the film’s antagonist. Because of this, there’s a real taste of Nicolas Sparks films that nauseated me to the point of even the most extremist of surrealistic circumstances. That clinging to family ideals that nods and winks and tries to unsubtly narrate to us that family, above everything else, comes first. Not a lot of damage is done on the overall finished grade, but it left me leaving the theater on kind of an unnatural note for a begging of sympathy that the movie simply didn’t earn. With more earnestness comes more rewards, and ‘The Glass Castle’ could use more tough love on the audience, especially if it is reaching for the tears. Aside from that main grievance, the film is also about twenty minutes too long, and could use some shaving around the early part of the third act, where the film transitions more to the current day format.
As for the performances, it is in this aspect where the film earns enough praise from this critic to give to warrant this a must-see for fans of the book. Brie Larson is probably only in the movie for a total of thirty minutes, but there’s so much anger and retribution that is screaming to get out in her now cool-and-collected exterior that hides the feelings of the story deep down inside. As an Oscar winner, Larson knows how to channel grief, and as Jeannette, we meet a woman who grows up long before her parents ever do. Woody Harrelson is spell-binding in this film, and feels like he gives a performance that is maybe just one grade under Oscar worthy as Rex, the alcoholic dictator of this family. Woody begins playing him with the light-hearted lug of a personality that we have come to love from Woody, but he knows when to turn it off at the switch of greying skies. Considering the character’s expositional backstory is almost ignored entirely in the movie, Harrelson adds layers at a time to a man who feels like he is too proud and stubborn to ever admit his wrongdoings. There’s a moment in the film when Harrelson is battling his alcoholism tied down to a bed, and for me it was as striking a scene as Leonardo Dicaprio in ‘The Basketball Diaries’ when he is fighting to stay off of drugs. Definitely Woody’s best work in a decade, and well worth the price of admission.
THE VERDICT – The glass is half full with this adaptation of a best-selling memoir, but it’s lumbering spilling hinders on the little things wrong with the structure and tone that could’ve made it an early contender for Oscar praise. Larson and Harrelson boost two emotionally layered performances that toe the line of past and present accordingly, and the film’s well-realized drama does impact quite a few scenes before it is too late. In the end, it was catharsis instead of comfort that I needed for the ending, and those ill-timed misfires in direction left this castle with a few cracks in its otherwise smooth surface.