Overview: The story of a young girl growing up in a wildly dysfunctional family and her journey both away and towards her father. 2017; Lionsgate; Rated PG-13; 127 minutes
Memoir: Real life is not limited by genre or tone. A person’s journey is not a comedy, or a tragedy, or horror. The best stories about humanity are all of these rolled into one and more. Director Destin Daniel Cretton clearly realizes this and has focused on these complications in his first two feature films, Short Term 12 and now The Glass Castle. The latter, based on the memoir of the same name written by Jeanette Walls, contains all of these genres, making it a unique challenge to communicate this strange and intricate life to his cinematic audience.
An Imperfect Pair: At its most basic level, The Glass Castle is the story of a father and daughter. To Cretton’s credit, the casting of Jeanette (Brie Larson) and Rex (Woody Harrelson) is superb. Harrelson, playing one of his most complicated characters to date, is the focus for much of the film. He is equal parts tender, horrifying, damaged, and doting. His warm relationship early in the film with young Jeanette (Ella Anderson) makes the eventual difficulties between them even harder to swallow. As child performances go, this is wonderful work. All children must face that their parents are imperfect. Jeanette sees this too soon and in dramatic contexts. The amount of subtlety in her relationship with Rex, as well as her siblings, is rarely seen in such a young performer. Hints at Rex’s own troubled past, beautifully and hauntingly captured by cinematographer Brett Pawlak, shows us the drowning man that Rex has always been doomed to be. This sequence, shot with Harrelson mainly in shadow, unable to truly connect with or even make eye contact with his terrified children is a moment of true defeat, and a turning point. Try as he might, escaping his problems and the chaos he can inflict is nearly impossible.
Brie Larson, a veteran of Cretton’s first film, is certainly the main draw, being a recent award winner. As much of the film is told in flashback, the role demands a great deal of nonverbal performance. Thankfully, Larson’s reputation is no fluke. She is able to communicate the pain that her younger self is experiencing through little more than facial expressions. She is also able to communicate a distance and a hard outer shell, clearly built for Jeanette’s own protection. She is given more vocal opportunities as the film moves forward in time, and when her moment arrives, Larson seems to gather all of that pain into one scene. She is absolutely worth the wait. Unfortunately, she is saddled with a transition near the end of the film, which feels rushed and even forced.
Setting the Stage: Cretton smartly spends time focusing on the changing world of this family, constantly on the move. Through the two hour runtime, it feels as if not only time passes and the children grow, but much of the forgotten parts of the United States are explored as well. This is paired with a lovely backwoods score from Joel P. West and Cretton’s flashback structure. Without this combination, Rex gazing off into nature and young Jeanette staring up at him adoringly would not have the desired emotional impact. And if that is not felt, Jeanette’s psychological journey as an adult ceases to matter. Although there are numerous occasions that should make jaws drop regarding poor parenting, Cretton always returns to these moments of peace, a wonderful juxtaposition to the usually loud and boisterous Rex.
But Cretton’s real strength is attention to detail, especially employed as an investigation toward the difficulties of poverty and its connection with addiction. As the family struggles with an empty cupboard, the director reminds us of the half empty bottle of whiskey next to an unconscious Rex, as well as his trusty cigarettes roughly shoved in his shirt pocket. There is never any real hope that he will kick these habits due to the nature of the flashbacks. This inevitability of his failures could remove dramatic tension, but instead it creates a depressing cycle that Rex and Jeanette are unable to halt, no matter how hard they try, and we must sit and wait for the hammer to fall. These battles with addiction shine a light on the complexity of these struggles. In subsequent moments, Rex is a wonderful father making a genuine effort for his family, and then a demon using every trick he can pull to get a sip of whiskey from his petrified daughter.
The emotional impact of the film is consistently intense and authentic. However, Cretton, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, is limited by the reality of Jeanette’s life. Often, in reality, unlike in narrative films, decisions are made without foreshadowing or a complete arc. In the film, a sense of closure is attempted between father and daughter that never truly lands. Jeanette is a character absolutely worth rooting for, and many audiences, especially those who have not read the source material, may feel torn on the ending of The Glass Castle. Perhaps with more hints towards this change, it could have made more sense for the character. As it stands, it is a glaring weak spot in an otherwise strong sophomore effort from Destin Daniel Cretton.
Overall: The Glass Castle is an adaptation that rests on the shoulders of Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson. Detailed and focused direction from Destin Daniel Cretton help the film access an emotional story by grounding it in reality, despite its dysfunctional main characters. These performances buoy the film, despite an attempt to wrap up a complicated story a tad too neatly.