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Film Review: The Glass Castle

Cert 12A, 127 mins
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenplay: Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Starring: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Sarah Snook, Naomi Watts, Max Greenfield, Ella Anderson, Chandler Head

Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s previous film, 2013’s Short Term 12, was a low-key, engaging and moving drama set in a residential treatment facility for vulnerable teenagers. The Glass Castle sees him reunited with that film’s lead actor Brie Larson, and deals in similar themes of childhood trauma and the consequences of parental abuse and neglect. It’s based on the book of the same name by Jeanette Walls, which recounts the unstable, nomadic upbringing she and her siblings experienced growing up with their non-conformist, free-spirited parents.

Unfortunately, despite the compelling nature of the real life source material and some strong performances, I found The Glass Castle disappointing, and a less satisfying film than its predecessor.

Opening at a dinner in a fancy New York restaurant in 1989, we meet the adult Jeanette (Brie Larson), a successful gossip columnist, engaged to caring, well-off accountant David (Max Greenfield). During the meal, the couple self-consciously bat off innocent questions about Jeanette’s background, and as they leave the restaurant Jeanette tells David to let her do the lying about her family next time. Through the windows of her cab home, we see the reason for their subterfuge – her parents are in fact living homeless in the city and rooting through rubbish tips for food.

From then on, the film cuts between her adult life and her childhood (with excellent, soulful performances from Ella Anderson and¬†Chandler Head as the young Jeanette) – a precarious existence spent constantly on the move with her three siblings and their parents Rex (Woody Harrelson) – a larger-than-life, yarn-spinning autodidact who shuns normal society – and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) – a more mellow, hippyish artist who is nonetheless capable of being as self-involved as her husband. Seen through the young Jeanette’s eyes, the family’s frequent upheavals and her parents’ erratic behaviour initially seem like one long, ongoing adventure – but as she grows older, she and her siblings begin to realise that they can’t rely on their mum and dad to look after them.

The title refers to their dream home which Rex is constantly telling them he’ll build, a house with glass walls and ceilings so they can sleep under the stars. Though he has a prodigious knowledge of the mechanics involved in constructing it, and draws up detailed plans, the castle’s continuing failure to materialise becomes a metaphor for Jeanette’s changing perception of him and their family life.

It’s clear that there’s an interesting story to be told here – the problem is that the film can’t seem to decide if it wants to be an impassive, warts-and-all portrait of an unconventional upbringing, or more of a feel-good, inspirational tale of a dysfunctional but loving family. Eventually, it bends toward the latter option, combined with a tacked-on ‘be true to yourself’ message. The result is a film that sacrifices real emotional truth in the service of achieving a more conventionally life-affirming ending.

The flashbacks which make up the bulk of the story do a decent job of depicting the highs and lows of a life lived under such a mercurial, unpredictable figure as Rex – but in trying to impose some kind of resolution on the adult Jeanette’s understandably conflicted feelings about her parents, the film tips over into melodrama. We end up with an over-simplified clash of values that equates material success with inauthenticity and living in a squat with purity of spirit, and suggests that all Jeanette needs to do to move on is acknowledge her roots.

Larson is an excellent actor who has form (from both Short Term 12 and Room) in playing characters whose calm exteriors cover up a well of rage and hurt beneath the surface, and she brings those skills to bear again as Jeanette. In contrast to those earlier films though, the scene in which those feelings finally boil over here feels forced, a catharsis put there to serve the audience rather than the character.

The need to have the film fit a conventional narrative pattern is also problematic in the portrayal of Rex. Harrelson gives a typically charismatic performance, and there are some touching early scenes between Rex and the young Jeanette (whom he fondly nicknames ‘Mountain Goat’) that make the strong bond between them clear. However, his alcohol-fuelled, increasingly appalling behaviour as the film progresses means that he eventually becomes an utterly unsympathetic character, transforming from an eccentric, flawed but loving father into an overbearing, lying and occasionally violent deadbeat. A subsequent attempt to restore him in our eyes on the basis of a couple of late-in-the-day further flashbacks feels like too little, too late.

After seeing the film, I flicked through a copy of Walls’ book and came across a small detail which had been tellingly changed for the adaptation. In the film, Rex is disparaging about Jeanette’s work as a gossip columnist, feeling she should be doing more serious writing. In the book, Walls says that Rex was actually a keen follower of her columns, even suggesting to her who she should be writing about. This is, on the face of it, at odds with his generally counter-cultural attitude, so it’s easy to see why it was altered for the film’s portrayal – but it’s precisely the kind of contradictory, confounding quirk that brings a character alive.

The film finishes with footage of the real-life Rex and Rose Mary, which made me think of Sarah Polley’s 2012 documentary about her family, Stories We Tell, and left me wondering if something like that – a blend of talking head interviews and home videos – might have been a better way of telling the Walls family’s story on screen. As it is, this adaptation is a watchable drama which undermines its complicated subject matter by attempting to mould it into a standard-issue cathartic weepie.

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