The Glass Castle seems a lot less sure of what to make of its protagonist's father than the audience might be at the end of this journey, in which the sins of the father are passed on to each of his four children. The man's wife might just be complicit that transfer of transgressions, too. There are a lot of informed judgments to be placed upon these two parental figures in the life of Jeannette Walls, the subject of the film and the author of the memoir on which the screenplay is based, as they are depicted in the film. Walls's life was a tumultuous spiral through poverty at the heart of America, driven by a father full of platitudes and a mother who enabled his view of the world around him.
That is not, of course, a call to judgment upon Rex and Rose Mary Walls themselves, whom we see in any case during the credits to be decent people. Perhaps, though, we are seeing them through the wrong lens. The trajectory of the story, which follows from Jeannette's young childhood through to a formative period of a few weeks in 1989, finds us at a moment of confrontation that most certainly suggests that her point-of-view, filtered through that of screenwriters Destin Daniel Cretton (who also directed) and Andrew Lanham, is too close to this subject.
This isn't to suggest that a personal point-of-view is inherently a bad idea. It is not, but it does feel as if the movie wants to have the characters of Rex and Rose Mary Walls both ways: It wants to see them as Jeannette sees them, which is a decisive view that still allows for the inherent bond between parent and child, and it wants to see them as the constructs of storytelling, which require at least a bit more evolution (or, at least, waxing and waning). That means the film itself is indecisive in its goal and more than a little disappointing when it reaches a conclusion with more power than it earns.
The story follows the hand-to-mouth, house-to-house, living/squatting patterns of the Walls family - father Rex (Woody Harrelson in a strong performance, especially in moments of apparent repression), mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), eldest daughter Lori (played at various ages by Sarah Snook, Sadie Sink, and Olivia Kate Rice), Jeannette (played likewise by Brie Larson, Ella Anderson, and Chandler Head), son Brian (played likewise by Josh Caras, Charlie Shotwell, and Iain Armitage), and youngest daughter Maureen (played likewise by Brigette Lundy-Paine, Shree Crooks, and Eden Grace Redfield). Rex has taught them that the experiences of living the land will supersede anything he deems less valuable, such as structured schooling or an economic infrastructure he sees as a rigged caste system.
The film divides its time between 1989 and various years in the past. We see Rex' alcoholism and stubbornness, as well as Rose Mary's inability (or unwillingness?) to confront it through intervention, guide his parenting style in the past and come back to haunt his present. We see the ghosts of that influence as Jeannette, in the present, prepares to inform her father of an impending marriage to an analyst within high finance (played by Max Greenfield) and reminisces about the parts of her past that drew her here. The simple point made by The Glass Castle is that we all become our parents in some intangible way. How the film reaches that conclusion, through a moment of understanding between two, very stubborn people, is the stuff of a finer examination of such concerns than the wishy-washy melodrama that proceeded it.
Brie Larson (Jeannette), Woody Harrelson (Rex), Naomi Watts (Rose Mary), Ella Anderson (Younger Jeannette), Chandler Head (Youngest Jeannette), Max Greenfield (David), Sarah Snook (Lori), Sadie Sink (Younger Lori), Olivia Kate Rice (Youngest Lori), Josh Caras (Brian), Charlie Shotwell (Younger Brian), Iain Armitage (Youngest Brian), Brigette Lundy-Paine (Maureen), Shree Crooks (Younger Maureen), Eden Grace Redfield (Youngest Maureen), Robin Bartlett (Erma), Joe Pingue (Uncle Stanley).
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, based on the book by Jeannette Walls.
Rated PG-13 (mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, language, smoking).
Released on August 11, 2017.