The moment I heard an old man in voiceover speak to just how good old-fashioned clean country livin’ was compared to big city life, I felt a great surge of anxiety. However, The Glass Castle isn’t nearly as cringeworthy as its intro makes it out to be.
Hell, the opening scene is practically an ode to bad parenting, as cute lil Jeannette Walls tells her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) how hungry she is, and Watts replies that she’s too busy finishing her painting to make her something, instead telling Jeanette to make a meal herself. With the stove. Sure enough, disaster strikes, as Jeannette’s dress catches fire and her mother rushes her to the hospital. Hospital officials are predictably concerned, especially when Jeannette fills them in on their family’s nomadic lifestyle. With a social worker threatening her with safety and stability, patriarch Rex (Woody Harrelson) decides to bust her out and hightail it outta Dodge. It’s hilarious, if rather appalling in retrospect.
It’s a pattern The Glass Castle follows throughout its first half, showing the many facets of what life with such dysfunctional, impoverished parents looks like, in all its ugliness and beauty. Based on a memoir by Jeannette Walls herself, the film comes off less as a story of her life than of the turbulent relationship between her and her father. In the process, it fails to do justice to the source material, and practically shoves aside all character development in favor of Rex.
It’s certainly easy to see why. Bolstered by Harrelson’s excellent performance, Rex is a magnetic figure, as charismatic as he is tormented by his personal demons and the alcohol that he uses to cope with them. He is often able to convince his family that their unstable, chaotic life is all part of a grand adventure, but reality is bound to set in sooner or later. And it does, but the film refuses to delve into much of the darkness and truly horrific incidents that comprised much of Jeannette’s childhood. Once she and her siblings realize they must provide the care their parents cannot, The Glass Castle turns into another simplistic, inspirational story of triumphing over all odds.
Jeannette is also transformed into a precocious, unnaturally wise tween who is not given room to simply be an imperfect child. She not only asks and persuades her father to temporarily stop drinking, she realizes he is unable to change and encourages her mother to leave him. She even galvanizes her siblings into pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. As an adult, she’s played by the always excellent Brie Larson, but given even less to work with. Larson has worked her way into a cushy New York life, but it’s obvious it doesn’t suit her, and her finance worker fiance is only prevented from being a complete caricature by the sheer force of Max Greenfield’s comic chops.
The acting, especially by younger versions of the siblings, is a lesson in its subdued power, while their mother and father are depicted in a mostly nonjudgemental fashion, which is refreshing in an era of such insanely perfectionist parenting standards. The many moments of humor are also spot-on, as well as much-needed. But such complex, real-life events demand more than the simple uplifiting story The Glass Castle turns out to be, and Walls deserves more than being reduced to nothing more than the sum of her daddy issues.