The Glass Castle
Destin Daniel Cretton (2017)
The official synopsis of this film from the distributor says that it “chronicl[es] the adventures of an eccentric, resilient, and tight-knit family.” I guess that’s just a euphemistic way of saying “criminally dysfunctional.” At the end of this film—this is not really a spoiler—the father of the family, Rex Walls (a mercurial and highly believable Woody Harrelson), surprises his favorite daughter Jeannette (Academy Award-winner Brie Larson of Room) by apologizing to her in a kind of deathbed mea culpa. My wife, herself no stranger to relationships with Narcissists self-medicating with alcohol, left the film under a heavy cloud, saying “Those people never do that.”
This ending is the biggest flaw in a film that boasts a number of positive things, including a no-holds-barred tour de force from Harrelson and an understated, intense performance from Larson. But perhaps the most memorable, and surprising, job of acting is from Ella Anderson, playing the tween-aged Jeanette, who allows us to see the complex feelings the young girl has for a father whom she both adores and fears, trusting in his dream of building the family a glass castle, but in the next instant gasping for breath as he throws her into the deep end of a swimming pool telling her she has to “sink or swim” in this world, and later sewing up a deep wound in her father’s shoulder with a needle and thread and pleading with him to stop drinking.
The film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (of Short Term 12, which also starred Larson), was adapted from Jeanette Walls’ best-selling memoir of the same name by the director and co-written with Andrew Lanham. I have not read the book myself, but I wonder how satisfied the many fans of the book will be with this adaptation, particularly with the Hollywood-style ending providing such very convenient closure and, it seems, an acceptance and forgiveness of her parents’ shortcomings by Walls herself. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? God never gives us more than we can handle. And other platitudes that are intended to make you feel better about inscrutable malice that you can do nothing about, or unforgiveable and unnecessary cruelties on the part of people who would just as soon not be held accountable for their actions.
Walls’ father, and to a large extent her mother as well—something we learn by the film’s end but which I won’t reveal because that really is a spoiler—put her and her siblings through dangerous and unconscionable childhoods because their own narcissism and enabling personalities apparently made them incapable of shouldering the responsibility to be actual parents. The fact that the film attempts to portray that experience as a positive influence on Walls’ life because, as the official synopsis of the film puts it, it gave her “the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms,” is a failure of ethical responsibility on the part of the filmmakers, a fact that the sentimental and unconvincing death-bed confession underscores.
To be sure, there are scenes of memorable pathos, like the one in which a very young Jeannette (played by Chandler Head), sets herself on fire while trying to cook on a gas stove, and suffers burns that scar her for life, while her inattentive mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) is caught up in her painting. Or when Rex chastises his daughters for “causing trouble” when they try to prevent Rex’s deplorable mother from molesting their brother. But these are not scenes that in any way persuade us in the audience to cut the parents some slack.
The film begins with the adult Walls and her fiancé David (Max Greenfield from The Big Short) in New York City in 1989, where Jeannette is a successful gossip columnist and David is a wealthy financial adviser. At a dinner with a potential client, Jeannette is asked about her parents, and David makes up some cover story for her, but on her way home through Manhattan, Jeannette sees her mother and father on the street going through a dumpster. She ignores them and her taxi moves on, but this encounter sparks the first of a series of flashbacks through which the story of Jeannette’s childhood in the 1960s and ’70s unfolds, parallel to her life with David in 1989 as she tries to adapt to a new and different world while her parents are squatting in an abandoned building in lower Manhattan.
Since two thirds of the film deals with Jeannette’s childhood, the top-billed Larson is only on screen for perhaps a third of the movie. Through the lengthy flashbacks we witness Jeannette and her siblings, Lori, Brian, and the baby Maureen, as they are dragged from town to town, one step ahead of the law, the bill collectors, and the child welfare authorities. Rex cannot hold onto a job even if he’s willing to take one, which is seldom, and Rose Mary just wants to paint, though we never see her sell a single painting, or even give one away, for that matter. The children are given books to read but never stay anywhere long enough, or openly enough, to actually go to school, until Rex finally brings the family to his hometown of Welch, West Virginia, where they live briefly with his stern, abusive mother, an episode designed to round out Rex’s character and in part explain his eccentric personality and make him more sympathetic.
In fact, the film seems to go the extra mile in getting us to sympathize with Rex. We see him give up drinking and get an actual job in Welch, after moving the family into their own house—a wreck that needs a lot of fixing and where he plans to build his glass castle, the blueprint of which he continually works on. Presumably this is a symbol of his unattained dreams, so we are intended to see him as to a dreamer, and perhaps meant to sympathize with him as someone who never achieved his dreams. Well you know what? There’s only one way to achieve your dreams, and that’s to work toward them. Rex’s actual job lasts about five minutes in the film, before he abandons his good intentions and starts drinking again. Ultimately, the siblings make a pact that they will take matters into their own hands and leave this home as soon as they can earn enough money to get away.
Even after Jeannette makes her own escape to New York, her parents show up and continue to make her life miserable, Rex at one point cold-cocking David at a Thanksgiving dinner and bloodying his nose. One thing that the film does not make clear is exactly what happens between David and Jeannette—they don’t seem to be together by the end of the picture. Are we supposed to believe that Rex and Rose Mary were right, and that Jeannette realizes that her “values” were messed up because she wanted a job and a secure marriage?
This is a well-made film complemented by moving performances by Harrelson, Watts, Larson, and particularly Anderson. But ultimately it fails because there is nothing in the evidence presented in the film itself to justify what seems to be the effect Cretton wants the film to have: the vague sense that what Walls and her siblings endured was ultimately positive because it made them strong and determined, and created a powerful bond among them, is really not enough. All I see here is that whatever doesn’t kill you leaves you scarred, like Walls’ poor burned torso. Perhaps the children can forgive their parents finally, but they sure as hell can’t excuse them. The only message I get from this film is that there are some self-involved assholes that have no business being parents. Two Jacqueline Susanns for this one.