Movie Review: ‘THE GLASS CASTLE’ shatters the fragile myth of the perfect family
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
We all bring a different emotional perspective to viewing films. Experiencing a character’s cathartic journey can re-open old wounds, heal them, or both. Whether you had an idyllic childhood or imperfect parents will color your view of co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s THE GLASS CASTLE. Based on author Jeannette Walls’ deeply personal biography of the same name, the adaptation is a powerful, poignant tale of resilience, strength, compassion and forgiveness that will have you in tears. Though it’s beautifully rendered with a light touch, it’s also complex, solidifying it as a biopic unlike any other.
Jeannette Walls (played in later years by Brie Larson) is a whip-smart, driven gossip columnist at New York Magazine in 1989. She exposes others’ secrets, but behind that glamorous, pristinely shellacked façade hides a guarded, fragile woman with a massive secret of her own. While she lives in wealth, her parents (by choice) live in squalor, squatting in a condemned building, digging through trash. Today, they’d be called “freegans,” but back then, it was something that caused embarrassment. Jeanette (played in her youngest years by Chandler Head and in her tween ones by Ella Anderson) grew up extremely poor, moving from makeshift home to makeshift home with her three siblings, alcoholic father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and eccentric artist mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). The Walls’ familial unit was a dysfunctional one, fueled by the parents’ need to introduce whimsy to distract from their problems. Often times the kids would get roped into the parents’ irresponsible and destructive actions. Jeannette has the physical scars to show from it, but longer lasting are those deep wounds that make her feel like damaged goods. As she prepares to marry financial analyst David (Max Greenfield), she’s reluctantly tasked to rectify her past and her future.
This is the best possible feature that could emerge from Walls’ tricky-toned source material, thanks wholly to Cretton’s incomparable vision and tender touch. He and co-scribe Andrew Lanham are never pushy with the character’s tumultuous emotional arcs, nor is the symbolism spread throughout ever obtuse. Instead they let the viewer interpret and assess things subjectively. Despite a few scenes recalling the rose-tinted tone of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, THE GLASS CASTLE’s filmmakers don’t shy away from showing the bad. They immerse you in Jeannette’s psyche during her worst life moments, like learning to swim and pleading with Dad whilst in the car’s backseat. It’s tough to watch the kids left feeling helpless and hopeless because of the parents’ carelessness, and on the flip side, to see a man deflated by his pride and crippled by his demons. It’s even more of a challenge to keep audience empathy for Rex, given how punishing he is towards Jeanette and the family. And the hopeful uptick the film ends on might be polarizing for some. Listen, I can’t fault her coping mechanisms if it meant preserving her mental integrity. All that said, Cretton and Lanham masterfully keep the sharp focus on Jeannette and Rex’s intertwined journeys towards self-acceptance.
Performances are critical, and no one sells it more than Harrelson, who’s doing his best, most vulnerable work in years here, and Larson, who never fails to be anything less than stellar. Snook gives an assured supporting turn as Jeannette’s older sister Lori, making you wonder why she’s not a household name by now. However, it’s Anderson who earns the MVP trophy, doing most of the picture’s heavy lifting during the flashbacks. She’s soulful, nuanced and inherently magnetic. Best of all, the material lets her shine. Other high marks go to Cretton’s frequent collaborators: Cinematographer Brett Pawlak does poetic work, and costume designers Joy Cretton and Mirren Gordon-Crozier make astute reads of character through color and fabric.
Glass is a potent metaphor tied into the narrative – one that never comes across as ham-handed. Not only can it been seen through and crack if handled carelessly, it can also project. It’s fragile. So are the concepts behind the meaning of home, family and soul – something demonstrated by this feature on a highly resonant level.
THE GLASS CASTLE opens on August 11.