The Glass Castle is a story of alcoholism, and the despairing tragedy that the disease can wreak upon a family. That might be reductive–it’s about many other things too–but cinematic portraits of addiction rarely escape the grips of the disease itself. So, while The Glass Castle may tell the decades-long story of the Walls family, the film’s central concern is the abusive drunken patriarch of the family.
Adapted from the memoir of the same name, written by Jeanette Walls in 2005, The Glass Castle stars Brie Larson as the adult Jeanette, Woody Harrelson as her father Rex, Naomi Watts as her mother Rose. In the present timeline of the film, 1989, Rex and Rose are squatting in an abandoned building in the lower east side, and Jeanette is engaged to a Wall Street professional named David (Max Greenfield). In the opening moments, Jeanette sees her parents dumpster-diving in an alley. She ignores them, and we establish the contemporary nature of their relationship.
But most of the film presents Jeanette and her siblings as children, via flashback (various actors play the kids at various ages; Ella Anderson, who plays Jeanette at about middle school age, is particularly fantastic). We see Rex and Rose and their four children traveling around the country, running from debt collectors and dead-ends brought about by Rex’s violence and drinking. Rex is a whip-smart drifter, full of facts and adventures; Rose is a painter and a dreamer. Together, the Walls clan plans on building a glass castle where their family can finally stop moving and settle. Rex spends his life planning and pouring over blueprints for this imaginary home, a sign of his enthusiasm and an emblem of an empty promise.
It’s tempting to describe the Walls family in the first half of The Glass Castle as eccentric, or nomadic, or other terms that can carry romanticized definitions. It’s even possible to attach the metaphor of the title to the family on-screen, about living in glass and not throwing stones.
But eccentricity this is not. Child abuse is not eccentric. Forced homelessness, failing to provide food for kids, subjecting your children to abusive caretakers, these things are not romanticizable. The Walls children are undernourished and scared and put into terrifying situations one after the next. Jeanette, no older than 6 or 7, is cooking dinner for the family, when her dress catches on fire and her torso is badly burned and scarred. A few years later, Jeanette’s youngest sister, Maureen, can’t sleep due to hunger. Jeanette pulls together all the food in the house and makes her dinner: butter with sugar on it. For her efforts, Jeanette is scolded by her mother, who was saving that butter to make bread some day.
All of this abuse comes across with a bit of a cinematic identity crisis, and until midway through The Glass Castle, I was worried. Something was just off about the picture; a disconnect between tonal presentation and content. There’s no small amount of child abuse in this film, but somehow beats were inserted that brought laughs from the screening audience. Adding to the uncertainty was the presence of Max Greenfield’s David, whose role is to draw out Jeanette’s shame, which will turn her back to familial ties. Greenfield is a comedic presence, and a gifted one, but he only complicated the emotional experience of abuse.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure where I was being asked to travel in The Glass Castle, but something subtle happened in the process of this not subtle film, and by the end, The Glass Castle worked. The odd emotional package of the film’s first half pushes against our expectations, but that discomfort is what makes the final act resonate. It’s a remarkable bit of direction.
The Glass Castle is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who’s previous film, Short Term 12, ranks among the best cinema of the recent years. And while The Glass Castle doesn’t reach those heights, there are glimpses of that power here. Destin successfully compounds the emotional gravity with comedic beats and confusion in Short Term 12, and once again, his work succeed in part because of Brie Larson, who can ingest levity and believability into even the weightiest emotional moments. Woody Harrelson, too, soars at that specific ask. He has nearly perfected the charming and likable asshole in the past decade, and while I found him mostly despicable in The Glass Castle, he still found his way under my skin, and it’s easy to see why those who know Rex, would have a hard time cutting him off.
Not everything works in this film. Cretton pulls back from the imbalances of serious and awkward and childhood unawareness–we all grow out of childhood eventually–but that leaves the 1989 sequences largely inert. Greenfield’s performance is too perfectly attuned, his embarrassment meant to prod Jeanette’s shame leaves little room for their scenes to live, and his straight-man foil to Rex’s squatter-hippy lifestyle add little to Jeanette’s inner struggle.
But The Glass Castle finds a successful and resonating emotional core that will hit some people hard. Others, I assure you, will be devastated. That punch is earned, even if it comes out of rocky terrain.–Christopher Zumski Finke