“The Glass Castle” may be the only movie whose PG-13 rating is attributed mostly to “family dysfunction.”
But if you’ve read the book, you know the raters aren’t kidding.
This highly anticipated version of Jeannette Walls’ bestseller remains so faithful to its source that the film is sometimes tough to watch. It falters only in not giving quite enough sense of the kids’ early resilience—and in trying to make up for this with excess sentiment at the end.
Even with those flaws, this is a potent and well-acted film that does not deserves its lukewarm reviews.
Walls’ 2005 memoir recounts her wild and woolly childhood at the hands of parents whose jaw-dropping neglect often constitutes abuse. It’s not that Mom and Dad are child-beaters or something; indeed, they do love and care about their kids—but they seem to care about themselves a whole lot more. Dad especially is a big talker and dreamer who, rather than providing fatherly protection for his four offspring, often pushes them too hard, too far, too early. And then there’s the lack of supervision. And plumbing. And electricity. And meals.
What sets Walls’ book apart from similar childhood-trauma stories is its frank acknowledgment of what’s good and best in Rex and Rose Mary Walls. More important is the way these kids, for many years, aren’t even aware of how bad they have it, maintaining wide-eyed resilience under the spell of Rex’s boundless, groundless optimism. There’s no other experience quite like reading “The Glass Castle,” and the book’s many fans probably knew it would be impossible to capture the kids’ hopeful naivete on film.
But the rest of the movie is a marvel, buoyed by fine performances all around. It scarcely has a dull or boring moment, though the overlong, saccharine resolution comes close.
Brie Larson (Oscar-winner for 2015’s “Room”) shines as the adult Jeannette, now wrestling full-on with the legacy of her rocky childhood. Larson gets wonderfully effective help from Ella Anderson and Chandler Head as younger incarnations of the protagonist. Woody Harrelson is letter perfect as Rex, while Naomi Watts works her usual magic as Rose Mary—I’d see the film again for her performance alone. Watch also for relative newcomer Sarah Snook, whose character—oldest sibling Lori—leaps instantly to life and leaves a lasting impression.
But what most viewers will remember best is the tale’s deeply convicting sense of how indelible and precious family ties are—even when they’re knotted and tangled. “The Glass Castle” repeatedly underscores how much wholeness in life rests on coming to terms with all that was healthy and harmful in our upbringing.
The credits end with a touching dedication to “all families who, despite their scars, still find a way to love.”
Nearly everything in this fine film points to that worthy conclusion.
“The Glass Castle,”
directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Run time: 127 min.
* * * (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking