The Glass Castle (Cretton, 2017)

This one’s hard to talk about. Not because of the material, which cuts right into you like a knife with jagged edges, but because the way the material is executed is… rough. Like, holy-hell-this-is-making-me-very-uncomfortable-right-now rough. Based on a popular memoir by Jeannette Walls, which tells the story of her unconventional and (mostly) miserable upbringing by a pair of idealistic nomads—including an alcoholic and neglectful father, The Glass Castle does its best to bring the ghosts of Walls’ past to the big screen, which means recruiting the likes of Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts in order to do it effectively. They’re all fine, though Harrelson is a bit spastic at times in trying to make Rex the tyrannical patriarch a living person again, and I couldn’t stop staring at Watts’s pristine teeth whenever she showed them… they were a bit too clean for an eccentric painter who probably didn’t have the necessities to brush her teeth much (although, I have to give it to Watts: she slips into this role with great ease, and is a good fit otherwise). Larson is good, too, playing up Jeannette’s icy adult veneer and pulling off her expensive clothing and jewelry, and she’s lovely when the veneer collapses. I really dug Ella Anderson as the young Jeannette, though, and if I have to choose, I may just prefer her performance to Larson’s. Her reactions to her father’s growing deterioration were spot-on and heartbreakingly true.

But. There is little to no nuance here. The tone jumps wildly between quirky family dramedy and the dark terrain of abuse narratives without finding the proper balance. Its “thesis” that, despite Rex and Rose Mary’s shittiest traits, they’re still relatively decent people, is hardly proved by the film’s narrative, and I was turned off by the fact that this film forces you to accept a conclusion that it can barely sustain. Hence, my extreme discomfort. I haven’t read Walls’ memoir (yet), but surely her reflections are not as cut-and-dried as this film is?

I’m not going to pretend that I know how to approach material that is so harrowing. One thing I do know is that it should let audiences engage with it on their own terms. This is the fatal flaw that shatters this Glass Castle, and it’s a shame that it had to be this way, considering how popular Walls’ memoir is, and how many people turned up to my screening. Some of them probably loved it (the woman beside me was crying her eyes out by the end); others, I know, were less than enthused, considering the various cellphone screens I saw over the course of the film’s overly-long running time. It’s too bad, but this is how it is when Hollywood touches a story as complicated as this one is.