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The Glass Castle (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 18, 2020

The Glass Castle


Starring Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Max Greenfield, Sara Snook, Naomi Watts, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Sadie Sink, Charlie Shotwell, Ella Anderson, Eden Grace Redfield, Chandler Head, Josh Caras, Shree Crooks, Olivia Kate Rice and Iain Armitage.

Screenplay by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.

Distributed by Lionsgate. 127 minutes. Rated PG-13.

How do you describe a good parent?  A standard answer is likely to include attributes like being responsible, caring, and stable. A good parent helps to meet their child’s basic needs: shelter, food, security.  It is hard for most to imagine what it would be like to live without a sense of security; without an address or knowing when your next meal will be.

It is hard to watch The Glass Castle knowing it is based on a true story. It is harder still to imagine that a similar story is being played out in families across America, where alcohol and substance abuse have destroyed so much.

Before the title screen, the movie works to show us the dichotomy between the childhood and current life of Jeannette Walls, the story’s strong heroine. It starts with current Jeannette (played by Academy Award Winner Brie Larsen). Jeannette is a writer-turned-gossip columnist, leading what appears to be an orderly, expensive, New York City life complete with successful fiancé, David (played by Max Greenfield). We are shown a glimpse of the façade as she warns David that “when it comes to my family, let me do the lying.”

The movie then jumps back to a moment in Jeannette’s contrasting childhood of disorder and poverty, where a family’s “normal” easily triggers every red flag on a social worker’s checklist for needing intervention.  We are shown a complex family dynamic where there is love and a sense of freedom, but little else.

The movie is centered on the father/daughter relationship between Rex Walls (played by Woody Harrelson) and Jeannette. Rex is an alcoholic grifter, moving his family of six from town to town, running from bill collectors, failed jobs and sometimes the law. He is smart, impulsive and unable to hold down a job – a man described by his children as having “grand gestures without follow-up.” Hallmark of a good con man, he charismatically pulls his family into his plan to build a glass castle, with the promise that everything will be different. He has the blueprints so it must be real.

Jeannette lovingly maintains her faith in her father unapologetically in her early years, asking for him to overcome his addiction and displaying strength in situations that should be far too hard for a child. As a successful adult, we see her trying to maneuver in the life she worked to achieve, while still acknowledging her role and place in her non-traditional family.

Naomi Watts plays Rose Mary, the artistic matriarch of this crazy family. She is equally dysfunctional, focused more on her painting than her small children. She holds her own in a couple of particularly emotional scenes, though never quite looks the part of a disheveled, oftentimes homeless, trash-picking mother of four.

A shout out really needs to go to the casting director, Ronna Kress. It was fascinating to compare the cast to the pictures and movie footage of the real Walls family. Young Jeanette (played by teen movie veteran Ella Anderson) stole our hearts with her versatility playing this painful period of the character’s life. Brie Larsen’s portrayal of adult Jeannette stayed very true to the stiff and fashionable New York Magazine ID image, but it was her high school to college age portrayal of the character that showed off her best performance.

Really, we’ve heard this general story played out before, but not usually with such detail and heart. The story seemed uniquely well written and insightful, allowing a glimpse into a family that most usually don’t acknowledge. I’ve not read the best-selling book, but it felt like the two-hour, seven-minute movie tried hard (maybe too hard) to pack in the character and story details. I suspect I will watch this again, with my teenager, to share this true story as a privilege check, and a reminder to be grateful for our own complex stories.

Bonnie Paul

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: August 12, 2017.

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