MOVIE REVIEW: The Glass Castle




Mulling over the many layers and events of Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Jeanette Wells’ memoirs The Glass Castle, I keep coming back to the same essential question: "Who am I to judge someone else's life story or life choices?"  If the real Jeanette Wells is able to make peace with the events of her childhood, how can I, or anyone, tell her she's wrong?  The answer is we can’t (and shouldn’t) and that’s a hurdle not everyone has shown to be prepared for or able to separate from critique.  I’m here for the film.  There are psychiatrists on chairs next to couches that can (and should) evaluate the rest.

Opening in the decade of the 1960s, Rex Wells, played by second-billed Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson, is the ranting and unhinged alcoholic patriarch to a family of four young children.  Neither he nor his ever-frazzled artist wife Rose (fellow Oscar nominee Naomi Watts) can hold down a steady job, leading them to live in extreme poverty from one condemned building and crowded back of a car to another, wherever the wind of missed opportunities blows them.  The children, Lori, Jeanette, Brian, and Maureen, know of no other lifestyle and are fed with the tall tale legend from Rex that their frequent familial uprootings are a grand adventure of freedom.

Not all of this bohemian independence as the children grow to adults is sunshine and roses.  The self-destructive flaws, toxic agony, immoral negligence, and unthinkable abuses brought on primarily by Rex destroys as much, if not more, character than it builds in his children.  Cretton’s film chooses a selective path through extended flashbacks of oppression being recalled by the now-adult Jeanette Wells in 1989.  Played by Room Oscar winner and the director’s Short Term 12 muse Brie Larson, Jeanette is a successful and popular columnist for New York magazine and newly-engaged to a well-off financial advisor (Max Greenfield of TV’s New Girl).  Her turbulent past rushes into the present with the arrival of Rex and Rose squatting in the Lower East Side.

Polarizing in many regards, some will celebrate and some will revile Woody Harrelson’s towering performance, the trapped bewilderment of Naomi Watts, and Brie Larson’s staunch strength posed against them.  All three adults duly impress to bear their burdens, but the most poignant impact is made by 12-year-old Ella Anderson playing Jeanette as a pre-teen.  She bears the worst brunt of the woeful heartache to break your own heart in the process.  Keep an eye on that future star.

“Dysfunctional” is too simple of a term to describe the family dynamics.  That word comes off as quirky, like Frank and Estelle Costanza, more than something more critically damaging.  Assigning the appropriate word of “abusive” drops a really hot mic of severity that opens a floodgate of differing emotional reactions, from vigilant empathy to fiery hate.  The Glass Castle has soul-rattling scenes and themes that are nearly unbearable to condone or embrace, no matter how true they are to the novel.  

Those who dared to read Wells’ book (or have perused a synopsis) will assuredly realize that a lifetime’s worth of hazards and deeper threading in between could not have been condensed into a two-hour film (no biography really can).  More alarming, readers will quickly see that Cretton’s film glosses over several imperative details and many unbelievably worse episodes of parental mistreatment.  It is fair, as a definite flaw, to call the movie diluted.  Even if the selective softening is for our own good, The Glass Castle is serving a distinct tinge of Hollywood sugarcoating on the screen.  Manufacturing cinematic heartstrings for an inspiring happy ending, while admirable, surpassed the opportunity to address the troublesome principles convincingly.  Call that partially problematic, and it falls on the writing and directing choices of Cretton.

The aforestated emotional reactions are what constitute the core experience and undeniable draw of The Glass Castle.  No matter how hard the narrative gets, you won’t be able to look away.  This movie will hit you.  It just depends on how it hits you, be that heart-rending or maddening.  Because of such an evocative effect, count the film as successful.  Your level, high or low, of openhearted sympathy and responsive empathy is everything when experiencing this film, and it all comes back to that opening essential question.

LESSON #1: LIE LESS TO YOUR KIDS-- As a father of two toddlers myself, I’m all for imagination matched with a protective filter of shielding truths children are unprepared to fully comprehend, especially within settings of adversity like poverty or abuse.  It’s when dreams clash with reality and tall claims become broken promises that the imagination route goes too far.  The big talk now becomes more lies than fits of fancy.  Give kids more perceptive credit to see through bulls--t and understand their situations, complete with the present ugliness, danger, fear, and all.  As a parent, you will earn more respect and your kids will come out stronger.

LESSON #2: WHEN IT IS ACCEPTABLE AND NOT ACCEPTABLE TO BE ASHAMED OF YOUR UPBRINGING-- For years, the adult Jeanette has lied about her formative years in her posh cosmopolitan circles, much for good reason, though still with heavy shame.  It’s strong of her to show the reformed and stable person she has become.  Where she’s wrong to carry that shame is the next lesson.

LESSON #3: LIFE IS A COLLECTION OF SHARED EXPERIENCES-- There’s nothing wrong with breaking away from societal conformity and embracing the raw experiential form of living in an unbound way.  Your up-and-down experiences with loved ones, from the happy to the horrible, are what develop your personal integrity, courage, and individuality.  Nevertheless, there is a right and a wrong way to live.  More of those ways are broken than built in the Wells revolving household.