(2017—Director: Destin Daniel Cretton)
(out of 5 stars)
“I swear, there are times I think that you’re the only one around who still has any faith in me.” — Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson) to his pre-teen daughter Jeannette Walls (Ella Anderson)
Potential spoilers below
Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton burst onto the film scene with his 2013 sophomore feature Short Term 12. The film about workers at a group home for at-risk youth propelled lead actress Brie Larson into the eyes of awards season voters, culminating in her Best Actress Oscar win for 2015’s Room. Larson reteams with Cretton in The Glass Castle, based on author Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir, which details the author’s unorthodox upbringing. As per the norm for many follow-ups to critical darlings, Cretton, Larson, and company do not reach the artistic heights of Short Term 12 here. Still, The Glass Castle shows Cretton’s talent in directing committed performances from his actors and spicing up the screen with small editing and cinematography flourishes that make his films more compelling than the average drama.
Played mostly by Ella Anderson (The Boss) in the flashback sequences, Jeannette Walls and her three siblings must learn to take care of themselves as their optimistic but irresponsible parents guide them through childhood as well as hold them back from better opportunities. Their charismatic father Rex (Woody Harrelson, The Hunger Games franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes) inspires them to live life to the fullest when sober. Unfortunately, his alcoholism draws out his dishonest and destructive nature. Their mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts, The Divergent Series, The Book of Henry) loves to paint. Yet her eccentricity restricts that talent to a financially-fruitless hobby that dominates her daily life more than her responsibilities as a wife and mother. Jeannette’s childhood is framed around her adult life (where she is played by Brie Larson, Room, Short Term 12, Kong: Skull Island) as a popular New York gossip columnist engaged to David (Max Greenfield, Fox’s New Girl), a somewhat timid Wall Street accountant. Jeannette and her fellow New York-based siblings struggle to live their own grown-up lives away from their rootless parents, who have followed their children to the Big Apple and have yet to hear about Jeannette’s engagement.
For writer-director Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham (who wrote The Shack from earlier this year), adapting Walls’ memoir must have been a tricky venture. Walls’ memoir received praise for not holding back from the darker childhood moments and for its balance and readability. Being an emotional and visual medium, bringing Walls’ story to the big screen risks becoming either saccharine sanitization (think the Tupac biopic All Eyez on Me from earlier this year) or a biased chore (like Detroit).
Cretton and company chose the proactive route of framing Walls’ childhood with her gossip columnist era during the first half of the 1990s, mixing the broad tones of 2002’s In America and last year’s Captain Fantastic in the process. Admittedly, Cretton may not have executed that route to perfection. The film starts off a bit slow and some of the happier conversations between Jeannette and her father Rex can come off as scripted. The film features many standout moments (including an arm wrestling scene between David and Rex at a Walls family dinner and a long-take fight scene between Rex and Rose Mary). It also produces several memorable quotes (“Hey, when it comes to my family, let me do the lying, okay?” says Jeannette to David towards the start of the film). Between those moments and quotes is a fair amount of waiting, as though the film focused on its parts more than its whole.
The film succeeds the most with its thorough subversion of a child’s adoration of their parents. When watching the film, I found myself reflecting on how, as I grew older, I began to recognize my own parents’ character flaws and failings. (None of these, of course, come anywhere close to those of Jeannette’s parents.) Brie Larson firmly embraces that long-brewed, stiff resentment in a grown-up child towards their parents in her performance as the high school-aged and adult Jeannette, demonstrating great trust in writer-director Cretton that extends from making Short Term 12. That said, I was more impressed by young Ella Anderson as the pre-teen Jeannette. At age 12, Anderson tackles that mental tug-o’-war between trusting her father and breaking apart at the pathetic sight of him possessed by alcoholism. The editing by Cretton collaborator Nat Sanders (Oscar-nominated for editing Moonlight, the recent Best Picture winner) maintains the continuity between all Jeannette performances with seamless match cuts and cutting on sound effects like the toss of clothing or a closing door.
Watching Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts as Rex and Rose Mary Walls is like watching two different storms rumbling through a house. Harrelson harnesses his West Texan-Ohioan accent to make his every intention ambiguous. He takes care to display his affectionate side in his quiet conversations with Ella Anderson, which constitute the film’s best scenes. Watts does not stand out as well, in part because she has to share the female screentime with Ella Anderson and Brie Larson, and her aging makeup feels less convincing than Harrelson’s. Still, she adjusts her concerned optimism to bring Rose Mary’s weird ticks to life. (With this and The Book of Henry, Watts has given solid performances in two of 2017’s films that struggle with tone to varying degrees.)
Cretton and company ultimately have bitten off more than they could chew by going with such tricky story material. Yet even when the writing does not come together as a whole, the film’s look and acting talent manage to become quite riveting. Moreover, with Nat Sanders’ editing, Cretton and company succeed in translating the sprawling timeline of Jeannette Walls’ memoir to the big screen with relative clarity. Any drama that at least drains your emotions and leaves you with a warm smile is worthwhile. The Glass Castle may not have been fully constructed, but I had a good time from start to finish watching its filmmakers and actors at work.
(Parental Note: The Glass Castle has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking.” It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “moderate violence, language, brief sexual threat, injury detail” and A-III (Adults and older teens) by the Catholic News Service for containing “a brief scene of implied child sexual abuse, physical violence and fleeting profanities and rough language.” The family in the film go about their days in near-poverty and in constant fear of authority figures who might take the children away. A man and a woman are cohabiting during their engagement. A little girl boils hot dogs on her own and her dress catches fire from the stove, putting her in the hospital. That girl’s family creates a ruse to spirit her away before they have to pay the hospital fees. A father teaches his daughter how to swim by tossing her into moderately deep water, from which she desperately tries to surface. The father of the family is either drinking or smoking in most scenes. An elderly woman is seen briefly undressing a young boy inappropriately. There is a scene in which the father coaches his young daughter in stitching a deep cut on his upper arm.)