The Glass Castle
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Run Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
When Jeannette Walls’ best selling memoir was released in 2005, I was completely absorbed by the unbelievable true story of the author’s bleak and disturbing childhood. The beautifully written account of Walls’ astonishing family history is riveting. So I was more than eager to see the story being told on the big screen by such a fantastic cast of actors.
Jeannette (Brie Larson) begins her story as a successful gossip columnist in New York City in the ‘80s. She is engaged to a successful financial advisor, lives on Park Avenue and wears designer clothes (shoulder pads and big hair being the rage). Yet as she drives home from a fancy dinner one night, she spots her homeless parents picking through a city dumpster. Jeannette realizes that she can no longer deny her painful family past that she has kept hidden since she first moved to the city. We then flash back to Jeannette’s childhood where a very young and hungry Jeannette asks her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) to fix her some lunch. Rose Mary, an aspiring artist, is too busy painting to deal with something as insignificant as food so she instructs the young child to cook her own meal. This attempt goes horribly awry and the child gets seriously burned when her dress catches on fire. When Jeannette is visited by her family in the hospital, it becomes obvious very quickly that this family is not well. Her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) fights with the staff and eventually sneaks Jeannette out of the hospital to avoid paying the bill. The family then hits the road and they continue to move every time Rex loses a job or they need to skip out on paying their rent. The family of six finally ends up in Rex’s hometown of Walsh, West Virginia where they settle into a dilapidated house without electricity or running water. Rex insists that he will build his family an amazing home on the property with stunning glass walls—a glass castle.
Rex is a tragic figure—a brilliant man with a troubled childhood who becomes an alcoholic while most likely being bipolar. He loves his wife and four children but is unable to truly take care of them. He teaches Jeannette to be resilient and creative, but fails to feed or properly dress her. Woody Harrelson does a great job of vacillating between a free spirited fun dad and a terrifying drunk. One moment you appreciate his strong connection to Jeannette, the next minute you despise him for repeatedly failing to deliver on his ridiculous promises. Naomi Watts as Rose Mary is also equally perplexing—she wants her kids to be independent and strong but she’s incredibly selfish and refuses to see what they actually need. I was especially excited to see Oscar winner Brie Larson’s portrayal of the adult Jeannette, but since her story is told by three actors over a 40 year time period, the most harrowing parts of her life are told by two great child actors (Chandler Head and Ella Anderson). Because of this, Larson isn’t able to show her full range of abilities on screen.
This amazing story of resilience does not translate to film quite as easily as I would have hoped. Some of the scenes feel a bit contrived and don’t do the plot complete justice. Reading the memoir gave me time to pause and think about the complexity of this family’s drama and the struggles of mental illness but unfortunately the film didn’t allow for such reflection. That being said, if you don’t plan to read the book I certainly recommend giving the film a chance. I am in awe of Jeannette’s ability to persevere despite the odds. Instead of blaming her family for her past, she pushes through to thrive. Her kindness and grace allows her to forgive her parents for their many faults and instead celebrate their unique spirits. If you ever worry that you are ruining your child’s life by the mistakes you make as a parent (and who doesn’t?) this film will definitely make you feel much better about yourself in comparison. The story also proves that kids are much tougher than you think and that ultimately it’s up to your children to define their past and determine their own future.