Director: Destin Daniel Cretton/2017
The Glass Castle is the film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ 2005 best selling memoir of the same name. Her book, and now film, follows Jeannette’s life as a young child into her adulthood, documenting the very difficult upbringing she had. The film is being directed by Destin Daniel Cretton who was behind the camera for the very effective Short Term 12, which starred Brie Larson. As with that film, The Glass Castle follows a determined woman stuck in a broken support system, seeking to rise above the circumstances she finds herself in to discover a reservoir of strength she never knew she had. The Glass Castle will be more accessible than Short Term 12 in terms of having a mainstream audience, especially with the book having been such a strong best seller. It is a powerful film, but may prove to be a difficult story to sell in terms of appealing to a large audience.
The cast of The Glass Castle is solid, with Larson, and Watts delivering strong performances. Woody Harrelson is brilliant as Rex, and may find himself with another Oscar nomination for his portrayal of this deeply flawed man.
Once again Cretton has teamed up with Brie Larson, who plays the main protagonist, Jeannette Walls, as an adult. Jeannette is a New York gossip columnist who is dating and eventually engaged to a motivated investor named David (Max Greenfield). David has money, and has a well-adjusted family background, and loves Jeannette but, like her, is embarrassed of her family, and seeks to avoid the chaos they bring into every situation. So much so, that David is quick to try to control each encounter by “putting the best face on” for public situations, often seeing it become a losing proposition. Jeannette is all to happy to let him, as she has come to New York and found success, but not necessarily happiness. We see many tell-tale signs of fears: the suitcases filled with her clothes open on the bedroom floor of David’s apartment, ever unpacked despite having moved in a while ago. She is constantly keeping her emotions in check, and aiding that endeavor by the ultra conservative dress and makeup that she applies to look the part in her high-society life, without dropping the facade that she has built. Her origins, however, will show us a much different person.
The film flashes back and forth between Jeannette’s life in New York, and her upbringing. Her father Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson) is a smart engineer with many different skills who never seems to hold a job for very long. Along with his artistic wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), a painter, they both are constantly seeking adventure and new experiences, often uprooting the family in the middle of the night to head to the next job. As a young child, Jeannette (played by Ella Anderson and Chandler Head at different time periods) shares this love for spontaneity and adventure. She also adores her father who is always seeking to play, and foster her creativity, while simultaneously teaching “big” life lessons. He has also won her heart for promising to build her a house made completely out of glass, her “glass castle”. The glass would be used to conduct solar energy and enable them to live with no electric bill, but also allow the natural beauty of the outside world to come streaming in. They could look at the stars at night, or enjoy the sunlight and trees in the day. The glass castle holds the promise of a life a young child can’t even imagine, and each new move, she believes is a step closer to realizing this promise.
As we first meet Rose Mary, she seems to be more of an absentee parent, choosing to spend her time painting even when her four children are left alone, unsupervised. When a tragic accident occurs and Jeannette is taken to the hospital, we begin to see a much darker side to both of the elder Walls, that the children only begin to realize as they get older. Mother’s desire for adventure and spontaneity is really a cover for her own issues. She would use this personality trait to avoid all kinds of unpleasantness, even at times that she should choose to face it head on and advocate for her 3 daughters and son. She and Rex are in love, but each of their demons also bring out the worst in each other, enabling their deficiencies, to the detriment of those closest to them.
As the story vacillates back and forth between Jeannette’s past and current present, a rich and deeply layered story is uncovered that provides depth and meaning to Jeannette’s experiences. It helps to demonstrate that even our darkest times can shape us positively if we respond to it with the strength and bravery that requires. Jeannette must wrestle with running from who she is genetically, knowing that she will never escape that no matter how much she dresses up her outside self in the lifestyle she has chosen, and seeking to honestly embrace her past so as to hold on to what was good, and still seek to break the cycle of the more destructive tendencies she witnessed from her family growing up.
The cast of The Glass Castle is solid, with Larson, and Watts delivering strong performances. Woody Harrelson is brilliant as Rex, and may find himself with another Oscar nomination for his portrayal of this deeply flawed man. Like the bigger-than-life Rex, Harrelson’s portrayal steals each scene as his portrayed personality sucks the air out of every room he enters, causing us, like Jeannette, to simultaneously being drawn to his charisma, and yet hating him for the cruelty he is capable of spewing the more he dives into the bottle.
The Glass Castle is another achievement for Destin Daniel Cretton, though it will not always be an easy film to watch. With its PG-13 rating, more of an audience will have easier access to this film, but it does not mean that it will be something that every audience will want to watch as the themes are very heavy, and sometimes very dark. But like Jeannette’s troubled upbringing, humor is present and more importantly in contrast to the darkness, the light is always there. It can be seen breaking through, in the cracks of such broken vessels, leading to a reckoning that we are able to witness as the credits begin to roll and video footage of the real life Walls family plays out for us, especially in the years following the what we see in the film, providing us a nice epilogue, and a fitting context for the portrayals we have just witnessed from the actors.