Movie adaptations shouldn’t require that you know their source material. But in the case of “The Glass Castle,” it’s impossible not to just say it: You’re better off reading the book.
Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir chronicles a hardscrabble childhood with unsparing detail about the depths of rural poverty and a real affection for Walls’ charismatic, irresponsible parents.
But the film struggles to get a handle on that combination, and ends up boiling down Walls’ experiences as a child (Ella Anderson and Chandler Head) and adult (Brie Larson) into a sentimental story that doesn’t feel nearly as lived-in and real.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton reunites with his “Short Term 12” star Larson, an Oscar winner who’s one of the movie’s three main assets — the others being Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts as her parents Rex and Rose Mary Walls.
Larson’s Jeannette is a gossip columnist in 1980s New York, and engaged to a stockbroker type (Max Greenfield), who’s embarrassed by the hint of Appalachia that still clings to his fiancée — like when she asks, “Can you box this up for me?” in a fancy restaurant. The moment she spots her parents digging for trash in a Manhattan dumpster is the jumping-off point for flashbacks to her near-feral upbringing.
It’s a heavy lift for a director, portraying parental behavior that’s clearly negligent but also frequently thrilling for the young Walls clan. (Along with Jeannette, there’s her older sister Lori and her younger siblings Brian and Maureen.)
After a very young Jeannette is badly burned cooking for herself, her father soothes her embarrassment over the scars by telling her how unlike regular people they are: “We have fire in our bellies!” He rationalizes throwing a terrified Jeannette into the pool repeatedly, and even leaving his kids without food for days on end, as teaching them to fend for themselves in a hard world. Watts, as the free-spirited Rose Mary, can’t bring herself to leave her wild, alcoholic husband even as he imperils them all.
Meanwhile, the grown Jeannette attempts to reconcile life in the upper echelons of New York society with her memories, and with her parents living in a Lower East Side squat. A high point is when, watching her father goad her fiancé into an arm-wrestling match, she finally loses her urban poise and starts pounding on the table, screaming “Kick his ass!” with a West Virginia twang.
But in tracing her path to accepting the past, the film slips too easily into nostalgia. Harrelson gives Rex a roguish charm that illuminates how he always managed to get back into his family’s good graces, but the film seems to go a similar route. It’s so dazzled by the Walls patriarch that it never sees him as clearly as his author daughter did.
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