Jeannette Walls grew up under severely tumultuous circumstances. As the second-oldest of three daughters and one son to two deeply irresponsible parents, Jeannette spent her childhood constantly on the move. After years of poverty-stricken hunger and contention with an erratic patriarch, the siblings managed to break away and forge new lives for themselves. Jeannette became a renowned journalist, and penned her story in the bestselling memoir The Glass Castle.
The writer’s account of hardship spent 261 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. The book revealed the shocking details of her cruel early life, lacking any sense of stability or security. Her father, Rex Walls, a West Virginia native, served in the Air Force and subsequently married Jeannette’s mother, Rose Mary. Rex grew up in need, sexually abused by his mother, and grew up to be an alcoholic and confrontational father. Rose Mary was a struggling painter and artist.
The two shared the same disgruntlement from the American dream, opting for a nomadic lifestyle devoid of responsibility to the detriment of their four children. These psychologically broken parents were much less victims of misfortune, but voluntary receptors of adversity. I am not a reader of the book, but from what I’ve heard and read, The Glass Castle is an intimately affecting work of writing, exposing a disturbing glimpse into the contented lower class, and offering a fascinating analysis of the complex relationships between parents and children.
The feature film adaptation has arrived in theaters, and due to its potent origins, it is sure to prove powerful and compelling to moviegoers. Starring Academy Award-winning actress Brie Larson, with supporting roles by Oscar nominees Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts, The Glass Castle has a strong chance of courting awards attention this winter. As a purveyor of dramatic films, however, it is evident that the movie is not the ideal representation of its source material. It is a profound effort, to be sure, but it doesn’t quite reach the class it perceives itself of achieving.
The film is the third effort from Destin Daniel Cretton, a director who rose to prominence with the success of Short Term 12, an independent film examining at-risk teenagers. Cretton was inspired by his own background working in a group home while he was in film school, and the feature marked his first collaboration with Brie Larson. The film premiered at South by Southwest to wide acclaim, and Cretton’s personal experience with troubled youth surely factored into his being selected to helm the film adaptation of Walls’ popular memoir.
The Glass Castle features moving and thought-provoking subject matter to be sure, but its clumsy execution highlights its dependency on its magnetic source. The drama lacks grace as its non-linear plot structure moves between one outrageous incident to the next, standing on the shoulders of its afflicted real-life subjects as it indulgently forces down false sentiment and ham-fisted dialogue. A skilled director has the confidence to mull poignancy out of muted inactivity, and Cretton’s unrestrained milking of lurid material demonstrates he still lacks the experience necessary for larger productions.
Cretton’s critical failure here is to effectively instill the enchantment Jeannette (Brie Larson) and her siblings experienced as young children. Their upbringing was harshly rugged, but a child has no other frame of reference, and Rex’s savvy charm convinced them they were constantly on “adventures.” Cretton’s depiction of Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), however, struggles at partitioning the parents’ redeeming qualities from their appalling faults. The film aims at humanizing these two troubled figures in its culmination, but in actuality concludes as an account of two contemptible bums.
Mediocre writing and direction are more to blame, as the superlative cast nearly redeems this lackluster affair. Brie Larson proves a suitable replacement for the film’s original star, Jennifer Lawrence. Her inner conflict is readily apparent in her adult life, as she struggles to conform to a world of wealth, having grown up as a vagabond. The ever-dazzling Woody Harrelson is close to enough to compensate for poor direction, in a layered performance of compassion and furor that almost conceals the script’s thin nature. Naomi Watts is splendid as well, convincing as a ragged mother, and exhibiting exemplary makeup work as an aging Rose Mary.
Fans of the book will likely be dissatisfied, as key events occur out of context, such as Rex’s pool-hustling scheme, in which he carelessly used Jeannette as sexual bait. Major moments feel staged and overly-cinematic, as when the children huddle up and declare “we have to get out of here.” The film is worth the viewing, perhaps more when it’s on DVD, as it brings a powerful story to life for those who don’t have the time to read the book. It’s a meager effort of drama, however, and certainly not the Oscar material it posits itself to be.
THE GLASS CASTLE
Lionsgate, Gil Netter Productions.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.
Written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham.
Starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Max Greenfield, Sarah Snook and Naomi Watts.
Released August 11, 2017.