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The Glass Castle is the based on real life story of the Walls family. Dad avoided work if he could and Mom was a (non-working) artist, so the family of six was constantly on the move, living on the cheap until Dad got fired from his latest job or got them into trouble with the locals. They would then move on to the next town and start over again. This led to a challenging childhood for the four children who lived largely without running water and electricity, sometimes went days without food and saw whatever money the family did have get sacrificed to their father’s alcoholism.
The Glass Castle, based on a 2005 memoir of the same name by daughter Jeannette Walls, is a look back at this life and the effect it had on the (now grown-up) children. The film is told in flashbacks as an adult Jeannette, now a writer for the New York Times engaged to a successful financial advisor (played by Jewish actor Max Greenfield from Fox’s sitcom New Girl, who is unfortunately not given much more than clichés to work with), looks back on her unorthodox upbringing, mainly focusing on her complicated relationship with her father (Woody Harrelson).
The film’s tone is very uneven. Sometimes it is a nostalgic look at unpredictable, but very loving, parents. At other times, it is a harrowing look at four children who sometimes had to parent themselves because their father was too drunk and their mother too distracted. The mother, Rose Mary (played by an underutilized Naomi Watts) does not seem particularly interested in being a mother. Painting is her biggest priority. The father, Rex, veers wildly between loving and cruel. When he’s sober, he is kind, but selfish. When he’s drunk, he is cruel and self-pitying (there are some effective scenes where young Jeannette (a very good Ella Anderson) begs him to stop drinking so the family will have enough money for food). The grown-up Walls children appear to remember their father (he died in 1994) based only on the good times. That is understandable, but it was hard for me to do that. That made the final, tear-jerking, scenes difficult to connect with.
The flashback sequences, carried by Harrelson and Anderson, are the best parts of the film. The present day story does not work quite as well. Despite the very talented Brie Larson (a Best Actress Oscar winner in 2016 for Room) starring as adult Jeannette, those scenes don’t have the dramatic heft that they should. The point about the Walls parents having very specific, unshakable beliefs that they tried to pass on to their kids was made effectively enough in the flashback scenes, but it feels beaten into the ground in this section. Harrelson is good at playing a difficult man who maybe could have been a great father under better circumstances. But at times it felt like the movie was saying he was a great father and that was hard for me to believe based on the evidence presented.
As a whole, The Glass Castle is a decent film with a better (and probably much shorter) film tucked away inside. It is an occasionally disturbing story made more disturbing because it is unclear what the filmmakers’ message really is. Are they condoning Rex and Rose Mary’s parenting style by saying they did the best they could under the circumstances? Or are they blaming them for creating those circumstances? I am not sure and that tonal confusion makes the film a hard pill to swallow.
3 out of 5 stars
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews