Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton tilts Jeannette Walls’ story about growing up in a deeply dysfunctional family too far toward sentiment. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.
Jeannette Walls’ memoir “The Glass Castle,” which spent seven years on the best-seller list, is no fairy tale: It’s a poignant story of growing up in a deeply dysfunctional family, headed by parents spectacularly disinclined to parent. Young Jeannette and her three siblings, who bounced from one squalid dwelling to another as parents Rex and Rose Mary fled bill collectors and boredom, experienced hunger, neglect, predatory relatives, and a desperate urge to grow up and get away. And yet, a gentle forgiveness shines through the book. Walls, looking back generously, sees Rex and Rose Mary as troubled, damaged dreamers, and finds herself unable to condemn them for what they simply couldn’t do.
The movie version is more problematic: Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) can’t quite find that magical balance that Walls hits, and tilts the story too far toward sentiment. Woody Harrelson as Rex has his monstrous moments, but more frequently he’s a twinkly-eyed charmer, dazzling his daughter even as he constantly disappoints her. (The title refers to a fanciful mansion Rex constantly promises the kids he’ll build.) Naomi Watts plays the underwritten Rose Mary as remote and faintly feral; an artist whose children are perpetually outside the frame. In one scene, the family laughs together outdoors as unexpected, picturesque snow falls; it’s a sweet moment, but its charm is undercut when you think of that unheated house looming behind them.
Oscar winner Brie Larson (“Room”) plays Jeannette, both as a 17-year-old and as a 30-ish woman pursuing her career in New York in the late 1980s. Grown-up Jeannette has the carefully over-curated look of someone who’s once known deprivation; she lives with her wealthy fiancé (Max Greenfield) but doesn’t quite dare to unpack her boxes. She’s a haunting character, and Larson plays her with a quiet, yearning tension that’s quite moving, but the film works to simplify her very complex bond with her parents, even throwing in a melodramatic slow-motion run toward her dying father near the end.
Movie Review ★★½
‘The Glass Castle,’ with Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Max Greenfield, Sarah Snook, Ella Anderson. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, from a screenplay by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls. 127 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content including family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking. Several theaters.
Stick around for the end credits and you’ll meet the real Rose Mary, whose very brief appearance might cause you to rethink the entire movie. Walls’ book tells her story crisply, without sentiment; Cretton’s film, up to those final credits, does the interpreting for us, and the result is sometimes jarring. For much of its running time, “The Glass Castle” is, to be sure, taking place through the eyes of a child. But we’re not watching with those eyes; instead, we’re watching that child undergoing trauma. It’s heartbreaking, and not entirely in the way the movie seems to intend.
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