‘The Glass Castle’ lets us clearly see into a soulful bundle of life
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Written by: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham, based upon the memoir by Jeannette Walls
Starring: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, and Chandler Head
“The Glass Castle” – “This is as real as it gets kids. You learn from living.” – Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson)
Rex Walls proudly exclaims the aforementioned statement to his young children during an impromptu stop in the desert, while he points out the intricacies of the arid – but wondrous – surroundings. Rex and his wife, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), are very knowledgeable and talented individuals, and their kids – Jeannette, Lori, Brian, and Maureen – could absolutely learn a couple lifetimes of facts, figures, philosophy, art, and science by simply listening to their parents during their childhood years.
Simultaneously, Rex and Rose Mary are also free spirits, and they don’t buy into conventional rules or mores found in most suburban domiciles with children. Due to his fierce independent streak, Rex fails to avoid conflicts at work. Hence, holding a steady job becomes problematic and so does consistently providing the basics – food, clothing and shelter – for his family. Rose Mary does not particularly object, and therefore, the Walls family regularly struggles with poverty.
Years after growing up under her parents’ rules, Jeannette Walls wrote her memoir in 2005 called “The Glass Castle”. Her story became a sensation. It spent years on The New York Times Best Sellers List and is currently sitting at #1 for Print/E-Book and Paperback Nonfiction. Jeannette’s work caught director Destin Daniel Cretton’s (“Short Term 12” (2013)) attention, and he brought her book to life on the big screen.
In a recent interview, Cretton said, “It’s an amazing book, because there is so much good stuff in it, and the main struggle (was) figuring out what we (could) actually fit into a screenplay.”
For those who enjoyed Jeannette’s book, have no fear, because Cretton masterfully constructs a flowing and comprehensive narrative within his film’s 2-hour 7-minute runtime. Certainly – and not unlike any film adaptation - not all sections of Jeannette’s memoir are covered in the movie. For instance, Cretton – who also co-wrote the screenplay – skips the family’s time living in Central Phoenix. Additionally, some events are combined or changed to help fit the on-screen experience. One example involves Jeannette’s infamous swimming lesson. In the book, Rex teaches Jeannette how to swim in a hot spring, but the movie shifts this event to a pool in West Virginia. Despite some differences between the mediums, Cretton gets so much of Jeannette’s book right.
This also applies to the performances as well. I recently interviewed Ms. Walls (published on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website on Aug. 7, 2017) and asked her what Harrelson and Watts got right about her parents, and she responded, “Everything. It was breathtaking.”
She added, “I fancy myself as somebody who is astute on picking up mannerisms or whatever that I am observing, and Woody and Naomi blew me out of the water.”
Woody and Naomi deliver terrific performances, and Harrelson is especially mesmerizing as Rex, a charismatic – but flawed – tornado, blowing into any small or grand space, demanding attention and scooping all the positive or negative energy within laughing or shouting distance, respectively, depending upon the particular exchange or his mood.
Although Rose Mary owns a strong screen presence, “The Glass Castle” truly focuses on the father-daughter relationship between Rex and Jeannette. As the patriarch, Rex should theoretically declare and accept responsibility to provide for his family, but he often stumbles in following through with his declarations. The reasons cannot be exactly pinpointed to one specific, dysfunctional origin, but alcoholism appears as a recurring issue in his present.
Frequent themes of broken promises and procrastinated plans become the norm, and “younger Jeannettes” in the film – played by Chandler Head and Ella Anderson – discover that their hopes pinned to their dad can be routinely dashed. The love between father and daughter exists, but the slow decline of faith in his word becomes realized. Jeannette’s memoir (mostly) takes a linear approach, but the film frequently jumps between her very different adult life and the struggles of childhood. Brie Larson plays Jeannette in the present and successfully stores a complex mixture of resentment and love for Rex, as the film’s flashbacks effectively expose justifications for Jeannette’s current feelings as an adult.
Despite terrible distractions for the Walls children, like not having a prepared meal in their home for three days, they develop a collective resiliency. A resiliency to simultaneously accept the past while moving forward towards fruitful futures. From an audience’s perspective, depending upon the person, one might look upon their own childhood with a deep sense of gratitude or commiserate with Jeannette’s experience. Either way, “The Glass Castle” delivers a soulful and rich bundle of life, because Jeannette’s childhood is as real as it gets, and one can learn a lot by experiencing her book, this film or both.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively