Kernel Rating (out of 5): (3.5 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 127 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This adaptation of the same-named memoir by writer Jeannette Walls focuses primarily on her relationship with her dysfunctional parents, including her alcoholic father and enabling mother; those heavy emotional themes, which include the emotional abuse and malnutrition Jeannette and her siblings suffered and the suggestion of childhood sexual abuse by another relative, would be too much for younger viewers. Also some cursing and sexually themed humor, adults drinking to excess, some suggested sexual content (including one implied sex scene that happens after a physical fight between husband and wife), an attempted sexual assault, and some frightening scenes like a young girl catching on fire, a nasty gash being stitched up, a character nearly drowning, and another is dangled out of a window.
The memoir adaptation ‘The Glass Castle’ boasts an exceptional cast, including magnetic performances from Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson. But the film unevenly handles its heaviest material, ending on a conclusion that feels falsely conciliatory for the emotional intensity that came before.
By Roxana Hadadi
Parental relationships are complicated. In “The Glass Castle,” adapted from journalist Jeannette Walls’s memoir, her connections to her drifter parents are examined from childhood to adulthood, through years of unmoored travel, inconsistent education, and malnutrition. But what the film is marketing as “the struggle that gives [life] its beauty” seems like a too-tidy answer for experiences that are primarily painful.
Oscar winner Brie Larson (of “Kong: Skull Island”) and Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson (of “War for the Planet of the Apes”) are the standouts here as adult Jeannette and her father Rex; Harrelson’s performance in particular as the charming, manipulative, genius father who abuses his children as a result of narcissism and alcoholism will surely see awards attention this fall. The two of them run the gamut in their relationship from resentful and combative to conciliatory and forgiving, and their push-pull is the film’s primary focus.
It is emotionally intense stuff, presented in superb performances—at least until the final 10 minutes or so of the film. That’s when “The Glass Castle,” in its presentation as Jeannette as the one who needs to forgive Rex, gets murky. (Perhaps this is handled differently in Walls’s actual written memoir, but director and screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton, who previously made the phenomenal "Short Term 12" starring Larson, strikes a tone in the conclusion that feels false.)
The film opens in 1989, when Jeannette is a successful writer in New York City, with her own gossip column, gorgeous clothes, and a stunning apartment. She’s engaged to marry financial analyst David (Max Greenfield, of “Ice Age: Collision Course”), a yuppie who seems to adore her, but the life she’s built for herself suddenly cracks when, in the back of a taxi, she spots her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts, of “Allegiant”) diving into a dumpster and her father accosting cars driving by. He recognizes her—but Jeannette drives away, and when the film flashes back to her childhood, you’ll understand why.
Politely, you could call her upbringing nomadic; in reality, Jeannette and her siblings were homeless, herded around the country by her parents as they fled debt collectors and police. (The titular “glass castle” is a house Rex tells his family he’ll eventually build them.) When Jeannette accidentally sets herself on fire cooking, giving herself a painful burn all over her abdomen, her father complains about the healthcare system instead of realizing that maybe children shouldn’t be lighting gas stoves on their own. When he throws tween Jeannette (played exceptionally by Ella Anderson) into the pool to teach her how to swim, he doesn’t mind that she seems to be drowning. And when he wants teen Jeannette to help him hustle a guy playing pool, he challenges her to go upstairs to the man’s apartment—she can handle herself, can’t she?
With the kind of crappy, irresponsible behavior Rex and Rose Mary exhibit, it’s clear they never should have had children at all—that their codependency, his alcoholism, and her enabling tendencies mean absolute failure for any other people they bring into their dynamic. And the film also makes it clear that adult Jeannette is struggling with her sense of obligation to them, and that the walls she has built (a great character detail is how seriously she takes her meals, refusing to let Rose Mary, who denied them of food so often in their childhood, eat off her plate) are shaky at best. Larson nails that balance, mostly presenting a distant, polite front to her parents before exploding into justified anger as they try to creep more and more into her life and undermine every decision she makes.
But the movie has a problem, too, in that it romanticizes some elements of their troubled childhood—and that it ultimately makes Rex the center of this story instead of Jeannette. When Rex drives through Joshua Tree National Park, telling his children “You learn from living, everything else is a damn lie,” he’s presented as a wild-hearted, rules-breaking patriarch just looking for his own frontier. When he effectively kidnaps Jeannette from the hospital, running back toward the run-down family car in slow motion, triumphant music plays—like him denying his daughter proper medical care is a success. That’s not to say that Rex shouldn’t have been a fully developed character; the backstory given to the man, from his own troubled childhood to his stifled sense of ambition to small-town West Virginia, are helpful in understanding how the cycle of abuse continues from generation to generation. But when some of his worst decisions are presented as the correct ones, that’s not right, either.
And the conclusion of the film, the one that feels so tonally wrong, is Jeannette effectively forgiving her father for all the mistakes he made, and then sharing memories and stories about him with her siblings and her mother. Aren’t all these people traumatized by the man who yelled at them, emotionally abused them, stole money from them, and deep into his alcoholism, said things to Jeannette like “If you don’t get me a drink, I’m gonna die. Do you want your daddy to die?”
That uneasy ending is what takes away from the power of “The Glass Castle,” which up until that point feels like a nuanced examination of a father/daughter relationship that was steeped in both manipulation and in love. But the conclusion seems too easy, too simplistic for the complexity that came before. In real life, Jeannette did reconcile with her father and let her mother back into her life, but as a film, “The Glass Castle” doesn’t give that transition enough attention and enough investment on Jeannette’s end. As fantastic as its ensemble cast is and as poignantly written as this script often is, “The Glass Castle” stumbles when it can’t decide whose movie it wants to be.
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