The Glass Castle is both an unfeigned, affective story and a fizzled mess. The film’s structure feels chaotic and unfocused, yet long and drawling – perhaps this was the intention of co-writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose filmmaking echoes the uneasiness of the plot’s content.
The film is adapted from Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir of the same name: a story about growing up in a home with an alcoholic and neglectful father who, despite his parental flaws, is an incredibly intelligent man full of love and a genuine sense of adventure, with “a fire burning in [his] belly.” Woody Harrelson playing Rex the father gives a spectacular performance, one that is at times cringeworthy but compelling.
The story oscillates between flashbacks from Jeannette’s childhood to her older self, a successful gossip columnist in New York city engaged to a financial advisor. While Jeannette seems to have assimilated into her new life, she cannot fully abandon the nomadic lessons her childhood of instability left behind. She still keeps her stuff packed in suitcases in the corner, showing that, despite what she claims, her parents have left a deep impact on her life. Brie Larson plays this version of Jeannette and achieves in her depiction the duality of her character’s relationship with her family. In her eyes, we can see that her early life, stuck in poverty and put in constant danger, has given her an incomprehensible strength that she cannot seem to forget, and for which she is unconsciously grateful to her parents. Naomi Watts also stuns in this film as Rex’s wife and Jeannette’s mother. She is a complicated character, whom the film explores quite well. She gives a peek into the inner psychology of a mother who refuses to, or rather, cannot leave an emotionally abusive situation.
The film struggles with the contradiction of Harrelson’s Rex. He is simultaneously a harsh, abusive and neglectful father, and incredibly devoted to his family. Perhaps the shaky position in the film’s storytelling stems from the intrinsically complicated way in which Walls herself gets lost in her own story. In the end, Rex, on his deathbed, is redeemed and his years of inflicted pain are forgiven because of his genuine sensibility towards his children. Not the best moral lesson, but the film is an explorative telling of a true story that portrays the sticky terrain of family life itself and, in that, it succeeds.
Image: Lionsgate Films