And you thought you had it hard growing up.
Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir “The Glass Castle” is an emotional exercise in realizing that the grass was probably greener on your side. The autobiographical novel details her early childhood through adulthood as part of a dysfunctional, nomadic family. Jeannette and her three siblings were constantly forced on the cross-country run, due to her father’s mistrust of modern society and financial instability. Her tumultuous upbringing attracted readers with a life giving balance of pain and joy, and now a film adaption is on its way to expand the story to a wider audience.
Destin Daniel Cretton, the writer/director behind the flawlessly human “Short Term 12”, took the reins on adapting “The Glass Castle.” It’s easy to see a talented filmmaker with such solid source material as the makings of a masterwork — the movie’s structure holds it back from such excellence, but its passion for accuracy makes for an interesting journey.
The film benefits greatly from how incredible Jeannette’s story is on its own. Watching “The Glass Castle” prompts a number of involuntary reality checks. Its narrative may recall fictional accounts like last year’s “Captain Fantastic,” but your brain will be keen to remind you that it all actually happened (something the film thankfully does not do, preferring to let the events speak for themselves). Cretton and co-screenwriter Andrew Lanham went to great lengths to reflect Jeannette’s experiences accurately. Capturing the lightning of reality in the bottle of cinema is the film’s most endearing asset.
But it’s hard to organize lightning. Cretton structures “The Glass Castle” curiously: the movie bounces back and forth between Jeannette’s upbringing and what is ostensibly ‘present day’, when she is married to a wealthy socialite and barely in touch with her parents. Scenes and sequences build tension on both sides of the story, but cutting between them continually undercuts the buildup. Longer, unbroken sequences foster potent sentiments — but Cretton avoids chronological order more than Walls’ book, which more clearly uses the present as a framing device.
Cretton’s indie style, understated and wonderful in “Short Term 12”, is blown up to Hollywood blatancy here. He still utilizes some recognizable touches well — a key moment of slow motion running comes to mind — but the eye-rolling obviousness of the score sticks in the memory even more. Directorial choices feel crafted to please as many people as possible, which is at odds with the authenticity of the events they’re supposed to help move along.
The cast is a far better facilitator of the story. Brie Larson, on the victorious path to prove herself as the best working actress of her generation, is in first-rate form as always. Jeannette has the strongest arc, as her father spends a lot of time as a static character and her mother lacks agency (though both are true to life). The child actress that portrays young Jeannette doesn’t possess the acting chops to inhabit her development, but Larson does, and she anchors the film’s later scenes with genuine growing pains. Having met Jeannette Walls, I’m confident in saying that Brie Larson’s portrayal is immaculate, down to her smile and body language.
Woody Harrelson is impressive as Rex Walls. He continues his upward mobility into nuanced roles, living in the synthesis of doting dad and alcoholic with a number of human touches. Sarah Snook, still criminally unknown, gives a poignant performance that begs for increased recognition in the movie world.
“The Glass Castle” is an intermittently effective movie that doesn’t live up to the potential of the true story, but it gives the book an honest cinematic shot. It often succeeds due to its cast and inherent life lessons, but if you’re looking for a work that can change your world, you might be better off with the novel.