I’ve often wondered why I can read a book featuring terrible parenting and allow the author to make me think that they’re actually loving people making bad decisions, but when I watch a film showing the same awful behavior, I want to gather up the poor offspring and shuttle them off to the nearest social worker. Last year’s Captain Fantastic pissed me off, primarily because the father character was a dirty hippie, but at least he tried to keep his children safe and clearly cared for them deeply, even if his plan to raise them in the woods was asinine. Compared to Jeannette Walls’ folks in her memoir and the movie The Glass Castle, the dad in Captain Fantastic was the father of the year.
Covering three eras in the life of Walls and her family (including three siblings), the latest film from Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) isn’t a failure because the parents find all manner of physical and emotional ways to distance themselves from the kids, leaving them to fend for themselves. It’s disappointing because it doesn’t sufficiently explain why the behavior was tolerated and why journalist Walls (played as an adult, living in the late 1980s, by recent Oscar-winner Brie Larson) ultimately forgave her parents for putting her and her siblings in mortal danger at times—at the whim of an alcoholic father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), and a mentally disturbed artist mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), afraid of losing him.
At a young age, while Rose Mary was too busy painting to make her children dinner, Jeannette was tasked with feeding the family, when her dress caught on fire from the stove and burned a great deal of her torso. And the incident is barely addressed anywhere in this timeline-jumping story that moves from seeing the Walls kids as youngsters, older teens, and “present-day” adults (again, in the late ’80s). The film is about Jeannette looking back on her life from a distance, until her parents follow her to New York City, where they live as squatters and dig through the garbage for food. She is about to get married to an investment banker (Max Greenfield), and wants little to do with her parents, but these things aren’t always up to us, and eventually her siblings—brother Brian (Josh Caras) and sisters Lori (Sarah Snook) and Maureen (Brigette Lundy-Paine)—all of whom are living in New York as well, convince the stylish, well-off Jeannette to make peace with the judgmental, disapproving Rex and Rose Mary.
As she mentally gears up for each new encounter with them, she harkens back to time after time when the family had to flee whatever makeshift home they lived in (usually somewhere in West Virginia) in the middle of the night to escape bill collectors or police or anyone else their father inevitably pissed off. One particularly disturbing sequence involves the kids being dropped off at Rex’s parents’ home, where young Brian was apparently molested by his grandmother, leading the kids to wonder if the same thing happened to their father, thus explaining his self-loathing and wretched behavior.
Co-writers Cretton and Andrew Lanham have done an admirable job picking apart Walls’s best-selling life story to pull out key moments that impacted her deeply—some quite touching, especially moments when Rex upheld his role as functioning father. But most of the memories are upsetting, to say the least, and The Glass Castle becomes a story about a young woman who is looking for an escape as soon as humanly possible. The title of the film (and book) comes from a set of blueprints that Rex keeps with him for a home made entirely of glass. The plans come out when he wants to retreat from the truth about his actions, and it’s something of a special project between him and Jeannette. It’s an escape, a distraction, but it’s also a thing that binds them to each other, even if we know it will never be built.
Harrelson and Watts are actually quite good at creating characters that are both loathsome and lovable—often in the same scene. In fact, all of the performances are good, but none are really able to solve the core issues the film has with motivation. As a result, The Glass Castle becomes something of a endurance test. How many times do we have to watch children be scared or hungry or mortified before we give up and ride the movie to its inevitable conclusion? The New York sequences are just an exercise in the parents embarrassing Jeannette at one event after another, in front of her fancy friends, and it didn’t take long for me to stop caring about what happened to any of these people.
I know people who have read and adore Walls’ memoir, and I have no problem believing it’s an exceptional read. But as a cinematic work, it’s merciless and exhausting. The saving grace might be Larson’s performance, playing Walls as a bit cold and detached from the situation as an adult—as one might do if you are determined to rise above your roots and leave the scariest moments in your life behind. When her strength gives way, it’s to a certain type of vulnerability that likely only exists when in the company of her parents, especially Rex. Perhaps The Glass Castle’s greatest sin is trying too hard, and spelling out connections and parallels among the three timelines that are fairly obvious to anyone with eyeballs in their head. It’s a noble effort at best, and a grueling example of a true story that rarely feels authentic the rest of the time.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.