‘The Glass Castle’ Review: Memoir Becomes Melodrama, With a Wasted Brie Larson Performance
Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 was one of the best movies of 2013, and remains one of the most surprising indie dramas of the past decade. It’s the film that put Brie Larson on the industry’s radar, charting a path towards an eventual Oscar win. Short Term 12 delicately unpacks the day-to-day trauma and struggle of neglected teens living at a group home. With that in mind, Cretton’s latest film The Glass Castle sounded especially promising – an adaptation of a memoir about a dysfunctional family told through the eyes of a young girl. Unfortunately The Glass Castle is nothing like Short Term 12, trading in nuance for glib storytelling while giving Larson little to do.
She plays Glass Castle author Jeannette Walls, a woman who escaped a troubled home life of poverty to become a journalist in Manhattan. The film opens in 1989 with Larson’s Jeannette dressed poshly at an upscale dinner with her investment banker fiancé David (Max Greenfield). While chatting up clients, he tells a charming story about Jeannette’s family and her father’s career achievements. But moments later we learn that story was a sham when Jeannette hops into a cab and passes two seemingly homeless people digging through the trash; they’re her parents.
The film jumps between time frames, from the ’80s to Jeannette’s childhood where her younger versions are played by Chandler Head then Ella Anderson. We watch the Walls family move from home to home and state to state, often packing up their car in the middle of the night before the debt collectors arrive. At first it all seems like a fun, whimsical adventure as their father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) turn gloomy situations into wild expeditions, distracting the kids from their dismal reality. After Jeannette gets badly burned trying to make her own lunch on the stove, Rex pretends to play a game with his son Brian (Iain Armitage) – Rex has Brian fake a seizure in the hospital while he sneaks a bandaged Jeanette out of the building to avoid medical bills.
The Glass Castle recalls last year’s Captain Fantastic, another film about a father with questionable ethics and parenting methods. But whereas Viggo Mortensen’s wilderness dad had a clear set of morals, Rex is mainly an emotionally abusive alcoholic who’s just winging it. He may have good intentions, and promises to build his family a mansion made out of glass (hence the title), but he’s a father who scares his wife into submission and can’t keep a job or feed his kids. And the movie isn’t exactly sure whether it wants to condemn or praise Rex. That uncertainty is supposed to speak to Jeannette’s wavering perspective as she reflects on her complicated relationship with her father. But Cretton’s film fails to unpack her inner struggle.
It doesn’t help that as the film goes on, both Harrelson and Watts’ performances morph into caricatures of poverty-stricken Americans. Watts’ Rose Mary is a country bumpkin with poor table manners, her hair wild and tattered as she slurps up lo mein. It’s so on-the-nose it’s almost laughable. Harrelson does an okay job, lending Rex a believable kookiness, but eventually verges into soap opera territory. When Rex decides to get sober and locks himself in a room for three days, Harrelson writhes on the bed, screaming as he begs Jeannette to sneak him a drink, before emerging days later calm as ever. Is this supposed to be a parody of an alcoholic?
The film does have some touching moments, mainly thanks to Anderson and Head. The Glass Castle glosses over the tragic and upsetting events of Walls’ life, and the results are exceptionally pat. At one point an incident of child molestation is introduced and then blithely skipped past and dismissed, as if the filmmakers were unsure how to properly handle it. All of the richness Cretton explored in Short Term 12, which brought humanity and compassion to sensitive topics like abuse and neglect, is absent here. Regardless of the source material, Cretton packaged this story into something easily digestible for a Hollywood audience.
But The Glass Castle’s biggest error is wasting Larson’s talent. Cretton got an incredible, measured performance out of Larson in Short Term 12, but here she serves little purpose other than boosting the project’s profile. Most of the time she's on screen she’s either griping about her parents or blankly staring into space as the film cuts to her memories — and there’s still a disconnect between Larson’s Jeannette and the younger actors who share her character. We never see Larson’s Jeannette actually process her past trauma; her big emotional realization at the end of the film isn’t earned. The film never figures out how to merge Jeannette’s younger and older perspectives into one cohesive voice.
It’s a shame to see such a talented filmmaker and actor reunite for something mediocre and emotionally hollow. At the very least The Glass Castle is a good excuse to pick up Walls’ book to hear her story in her own words, or revisit Short Term 12.