FILM REVIEW – THE GLASS CASTLE. With Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Chandler Head. Written by Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking. 127 minutes.
The obvious question coming out of a screening of THE GLASS CASTLE is trying to guess the audience the filmmakers imagine will want to see this. Based on the memoir by Jeannette Wells, it is the story of a horribly dysfunctional family seen through the eyes of the second of four children, who grows up to become a writer. The “castle” of the title is the elaborate home that their father Rex (Woody Harrelson) is forever designing––with lots of windows––but, like his other plans, will never come to fruition.
We first meet Jeannette (Brie Larson) in 1989 when she is a gossip columnist for New York Magazine, and engaged to an investment banker (Max Greenfield). On her way home that night her cab passes two homeless people picking through garbage. They are her parents. Much of the 127-minute film is told in flashback so we see the horrific conditions the children grew up in. When young Jeannette (Chandler Head) complains she’s hungry, her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) suggests the child boils some hot dogs since she’s busy with her painting. As a result, the little girl’s clothes catch fire and she ends up in the hospital, where Rex enlists her younger brother in a scam so they can get her out without paying.
Such is the life this family leads. Rex is not a stupid man, but he’s a drunk who can’t keep a job and keeps the family constantly moving ahead of bill collectors. He’s also a bully, who gets worse as the story goes on, at one point promising the family a “feast” when they are reduced to eating a concoction of butter and sugar, the only food in the house. He comes back hours later drunk, with no food, and their money spent.
So what is the point of the story? Part of it seems to be how the four children turn into responsible adults in spite of their parents by looking out for each other. At film’s end, after Rex’s death, they seem to have made their peace with the past, and remember the good times rather than the bad. And there are good times. It’s just not enough to compensate for the abuse and neglect that marked their growing up.
From a psychological viewpoint, it’s good––assuming it’s true to the real story––that the children survived and thrived, and are able to live normal lives instead of being forever marked by their upbringing. That they can ultimately forgive their parents is a sign of their own fortitude. But that’s different from the point of view of the audience. We have no reason to forgive them, and the ending leaves a bad taste.
As the parents, Harrelson and Watts have a difficult path, having to show their almost schizophrenic attitude towards parenting. We can see that, in their own minds, they love their children and sometimes do the right thing. Yet we also see a father defending his own mother who may be a child molester, and striking out in random acts of violence including against his own wife who can not bring herself to leave him. Larson has the impossible task of showing the adult first rejecting and then reconciling with her parents, and the strength of her performance is largely made possible by Head, who plays Jeannette as a child, and Ella Anderson, who plays her as a teenager.
Perhaps there are people who will find “The Glass Castle” cathartic, seeing abused children overcome a terrible upbringing and even finding the strength to forgive. For many, though, it will be an unpleasant two hours ending with an image of family unity that may be hard to believe, even if true.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.