'The Glass Castle': Film Review

Affecting and never mawkish, despite a few heavy-handed lapses.

Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts star in the big-screen adaptation of Jeannette Walls' best-selling memoir about her unconventional upbringing.

The ties that bind often embarrass or even shame, a near-universal reality that writer Jeannette Walls explored, unforgettably, through the extreme example of her childhood. Her book The Glass Castle — plainspoken, vivid and unputdownable — is equal parts loving tribute and pained confessional, resisting sentimentalism at every turn. Director Destin Daniel Cretton mostly manages to do the same, though his concessions to the expectation for big movie moments deliver occasionally strained results.

But the feature, which reunites the filmmaker with his Short Term 12 breakout star, Brie Larson, successfully captures the essence of the memoir, with exceptionally potent work by Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts as the spirited, self-involved and willfully impoverished bohemians who subjected their four kids to a peripatetic, hardscrabble life but also, in the process, taught them to fend for themselves.

Cretton and his co-writer, Andrew Lanham, zero in on the relationship between Jeannette and her father, Rex, who rails against capitalism, environmental degradation, racism and hypocrisy in all its varied forms, but is also sometimes simply a mean drunk, blind to his own tyrannical ways and the impact of his alcoholism on his family. As good as Harrelson is in the role of the charismatic, damaged idealist — and as good as the two young actresses are who play Jeannette in the sequences set in the 1960s and ’70s — other family dynamics get lost as the story veers into the realm of character study. Yet whatever its imbalances and flaws, the movie is sure to strike an emotional chord with the book’s many fans as well as newcomers to the remarkable tale.

The film moves back and forth between the childhood memories of Jeannette (Larson) and her life in 1989 Manhattan as a successful gossip columnist. With her parents living in a squat on the Lower East Side and scavenging through garbage in the streets, her denial and dissembling of her past are reaching a tipping point, spurred on by her engagement to financial adviser David (Max Greenfield), a standard-issue Wrong Boyfriend.

This element of the screenplay, the most significant departure from the source material, finds the story at its most generic and forced. That might be Cretton’s point: Jeannette, with her carefully coiffed hair and awful ’80s power dressing, is forcing herself into a role that doesn’t quite fit.

Yet if the storyline involving the adult Jeannette is all too obviously building toward catharsis, it offers the opportunity to see Larson and Watts face off across a restaurant booth in a pitch-perfect scene. The daughter sits ramrod-straight; her mother, Rose Mary, slurps up lo mein noodles and, stabbing the air with her chopsticks, declares, “Your values are all confused” — an apt response, if not a tactful one, to the way Jeannette flashes her ringed hand to announce that she’s engaged.

While Rex, brought to quicksilver life by Harrelson, falls on and off the wagon and in and out of employment, endlessly perfecting his blueprints for the glass, solar-powered dream house he swears he’ll build one day, Rose Mary makes her artistic expression as a painter her priority, bar none. Not even her children’s hunger can pull her away from the easel, as the very young Jeannette’s misadventure with a stove makes clear.

Cretton uses the harrowing domestic accident and the girl’s subsequent hospital stay as a way to introduce the family. Set to Joel P West’s upbeat, twangy music, the sequence has a somewhat overplayed comic energy, but it establishes the movie’s refusal to be maudlin. That reflects Rex and Rose Mary’s refusal to indulge the slightest whine from their kids, whether the family is fleeing creditors in the dead of night or the household has been devoid of food for days. Neither will they step in to protect their kids, the hands-off policy extending, disturbingly, to profoundly alarming complaints involving a horrid grandmother (Robin Bartlett, at once terrifying and pathetic) and, later, a barroom lech (Dominic Bogart).

The character of Jeannette, so prematurely parental, comes into focus through the exceptionally sensitive performances of Chandler Head, playing the 6-year-old version, and Ella Anderson as the alert, determined tween. By contrast her siblings, portrayed in adulthood by Sarah Snook, Josh Caras and Brigette Lundy-Paine, remain vaguely defined, with the experiences of youngest sister Maureen (Lundy-Paine) noticeably unexplored, her ordeals alluded to in a late scene that feels truncated.

But by and large, Glass Castle proceeds with a stripped-down fluency that suits Walls’ straightforward prose and sometimes draws directly from it. The nonintrusive camerawork by Brett Pawlak (one of several returning creative collaborators from Short Term 12, as is Moonlight editor Nat Sanders) is in sync with Sharon Seymour’s superb production design. The settings shift along with the emotional terrain: the expansive desert of the family’s more hopeful years crisscrossing the Southwest; an oppressive darkness when they return to Rex’s native West Virginia, with its down-and-out economy and their barely functioning house; the well-appointed interiors of the high-powered New York where the grown-up Jeannette comes to terms with the complicated truth about her family.

However engineered certain aspects of the film are, however de rigueur the feel-good documentary material that caps the narrative, Cretton honors that complicated truth. Even while gesturing toward a redemptive sacred altar, a default mode for parenthood in many mainstream movies, the director lets the messy realities stand. And his fine cast makes them ring true — the selfishness and neglect, the confrontations brutal and tender, the pained silences and, not least, the gusts of pure, jagged joy.

Production companies: Lionsgate, Gil Netter Productions
Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Max Greenfield, Sarah Snook, Robin Bartlett, Ella Anderson, Chandler Head, Josh Caras, Shree Grace Crooks, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Charlie Shotwell, Iain Armitage, Sadie Sink, Olivia Kate Rice, Eden Grace Redfield, Joe Pingue, A.J. Henderson, Dominic Bogart
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriters: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham; based on the book by Jeannette Walls
Producers: Gil Netter, Ken Kao
Executive producer: Mike Drake
Director of photography: Brett Pawlak
Production designer: Sharon Seymour
Costume designers: Mirren Gordon-Crozier, Joy Hanae Lani Cretton
Editor: Nat Sanders
Composer: Joel P West
Casting director: Ronna Kress

Rated PG-13, 127 minutes