Starring: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts
Directed By: Destin Daniel Cretton
Running Time: 127 minutes
There’s an old adage that everyone has heard at some point about how we can’t pick our parents. I hate that truism. It’s rarely used in an earnest conversation and mainly glosses over a more deep-seeded conflict. In “The Glass Castle,” the conflict is multi-layered and a lot more complicated than its face value. Rex Walls (Harrelson) drags his wife and kids cross country to escape debt, police and his own parents, internalizing and allowing some of his more dark secrets to manifest into emotional manipulation and possible abuse.
Rex repeatedly attempts to drown his sorrows in alcohol, but surprisingly reveals a softer side anytime he hits the bottle. That’s not to say he has his deplorable moments with whiskey heavy on his breath. His four children and wife, Rose (Watts), are generally at his mercy as he goes from dilapidated home to dilapidated home. They live without proper plumbing, heat or even food sometimes. They finally settle down in rural West Virginia where his children, on the cusp of puberty, begin to piece together that their father isn’t the kind, gentle soul they have believed him to be.
“The Glass Castle” is told from the point of view of Rex’s second oldest child, Jeanette. Brie Larson is wasted as grown-up Jeanette, but is played much better in flashbacks by Ella Anderson. The other three kids don’t have much of a personality in the flashbacks, but considering its Jeanette’s memoir, that’s perfectly fine. The audience’s perception of Rex unravels as Jeanette gets older and sees Rex as a flawed father figure. Besides being an alcoholic, he possibly abuses their mom, imprisons the children within their own home without proper education and prioritizes booze over buying essentials for the family.
Rex is a difficult character to root for, at all. His likeability is buoyed by Harrelson’s ability to flip from a shattered, paranoid man to a charming goofball. It’s difficult to fully comprehend Jeanette’s overall attitude because when Larson is brought back, she’s used to deliver icy stares and spout declarative disgust in the film’s present day. It’s not only until the end of the movie that she begins to warm up to her father’s habitual lies. “The Glass Castle” sloppily attempts to ever convey a direct, and even indirect, message about who Rex really is.
But because it continues to play with Rex as an anti-hero, “The Glass Castle” is rarely boring and is a sometimes interesting, if not derivative, soap opera. There are predictable beats, but the film throws a few curveballs and avoids several cliché moments, settling for a more genuine dramatic effect. Some viewers may even see their own family in the Walls, which is both heartbreaking and terrifying. Of course the modern day Walls most likely wouldn’t be able to handle life without a smartphone.
“The Glass Castle” is based on Jeanette’s memoirs, which I imagine is much more lengthy and in-depth. The book is a bestseller with a massive following because of its truthful slice of impoverished Americana. Despite taking place in the 70’s, there are parallels to the broken small towns that continue to dot America, which add another level of relatability to the film. However the entirely white cast may disarm and confound anyone outside the demographic depicted on-screen.
There is a level of understanding in “The Glass Castle” about how once one or both of your parents pass, you don’t necessarily reflect on the bad times. You seem to neglect how terrible they may have been, but instead focus on and cherish the moments where they showed their parental love and care for you. The things that bugged you and the moments of turmoil are reflected on through tears and laughter, as long as those memories weren’t too tumultuous. “The Glass Castle” is a peculiar film about hindsight forgiveness, more than blind acceptance.