The Glass Castle is a film that approaches the true story of one woman’s fraught navigation through a lifetime of fractured and complex family dynamics with about as much resentful trepidation as the woman herself. That woman, Jeannette Walls, wrote the book upon which this film is based, a memoir that is about as open and non-judgmental as can be considering the turbulent environs in which its author spent the entirety of her upbringing. This filmic adaptation feels like the book’s inverse, a fanged triptych that is as quick to judge as it is embrace its subjects – and it’s so convincing in those judgments that it can’t successfully swing the pendulum back towards legitimate catharsis. The film is admirable in its deep-dive into festering, multi-layered wounds of family. Its warm conclusions, however, feel less true to its harsh and unflinching gaze.
Reckoning with emotional wounds is familiar thematic territory for director Destin Daniel Cretton, who announced himself as a vital indie voice with 2013’s Short Term 12. But unlike that film, The Glass Castle seems to strain into a glass-half-full perspective amid a torrent of emptiness, as though a dark past can only be cleansed by putting a positive spin on it. One can’t say for sure that was Walls’ intent in writing her memoir, but it is where this screenplay lands. And as such, Cretton is the right filmmaker for the themes but the wrong filmmaker for the message. Short Term 12 wasn’t about family strife, but it explored the impact of emotional baggage, from buried rage to explosive overreaction to grudging acceptance, more deftly in an indirect manner than this film does by tackling it head-on.
The screenplay, by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, jumps back and forth on the timeline, charting a fractured sequence of events in Jeannette’s young life, in which her boisterous, imposing, larger-than-life father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and eccentric artist mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) cart their four children across the country, bouncing from one temporary home to another, filling their kids with the empowerment of hope and imagination but depriving them of security, stability, and schooling, not to mention simple nourishment. In the eyes of his kids, Rex presents this lifestyle as the choice of titans, to embark on constant adventures, living off the land and learning from living. The reality is, of course, murkier, with the family patriarch unable to sustain a steady job, the inevitable result of a toxic combination of unreliability and stubbornness, and then turning to alcohol to soothe the pain he hides from his family.
All of this is framed in flashback, as a grown Jeannette (Brie Larson) is still reckoning with a life spent in constant upheaval. In fact, she seems to be living her adult life as a form of rebellion, having distanced herself from her parents and settled into a posh existence in New York City as a gossip columnist, engaged to a finance hot-shot (Max Greenfield), working out of a sterile corporate office, and attending nightly dinner parties. Even the untrained eye can see this woman isn’t quite where she yearns to be, but the diametric The Glass Castle presents to us – poverty-stricken nomadism versus rich-bitch yuppyism – forces us to pick one side or the other, when neither is remotely appropriate for Jeannette…or anyone else, really. The black-and-white comparison is really just a sideways ploy to garner undue sympathy for the Harrelson character, who did his children the gravest of disservices but who rambles with passion against what Jeannette has become. Both can be, and are, wrong, a gray complexity the film seems desperate to realize but is never quite able.
On the subject of Harrelson’s Rex, the character is emblematic of the film’s struggle for thematic and tonal balance, initially presented as a venerable free spirit, but quickly and precipitously descending into a monstrous drunk in clinical denial, while only scratching the surface of what his personality represents or how familial sins infect one generation after another. For its duration, The Glass Castle struggles to reconcile the precious good with the tremendous bad, and does so by itself flipping the switch between brutal drama and almost sitcom-ish whimsy, a balance that can only be struck with the nimblest touch and probably a sprinkling of cosmic cinema magic. Harrelson, whose performance is fabulous (an adjective that could also be applied to the rest of the cast), is the right actor to pull off that push-and-pull, but this is not the right screenplay.
The titular castle is the great myth of the Walls’ family, a blueprint Rex worked on in fits and starts, the evergreen promise of something grand on the horizon, a place to call home for more than a few months at a time. Nevermind the great symbolic promise of such a notion, this film addresses it as earnestly and obviously as possible, landing on the aww-shucks viewpoint that, “at least we had something to dream about,” in spite of spending the previous two hours acutely depicting the continual destruction of anything resembling a dream. There’s a wrenching complexity within that construct that The Glass Castle, at least in this form, cannot unpack, as if experiencing turmoil and then eventually forgiving those responsible is enough to justify a smile before the end credits.