Families are complicated, aren’t they? You can find yourself hating a relative while simultaneously loving them. Likewise, there’s a lot to love in The Glass Castle and a lot to hate. On one hand, this is a well-made, well-acted film with an interesting true story to tell. On the other hand, it’s predictable from start to finish, constantly shoving melodrama down our throats, and insistent that we empathize with some truly deplorable characters. The result has a fair deal in common with a literal glass castle. It might’ve been made with good intentions, but was destined to collapse.
Destin Daniel Cretton’s film is based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls, who’s played by Oscar-winner Brie Larson here. Now a successful gossip columnist, Jeanette comes from a poor family of squatters. Her mother is Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), a free-spirited artist that puts more effort into her paintings than raising her four children. Jeanette’s father is Rex (Woody Harrelson), an alcoholic dreamer that would rather squander away his potential than become a conformist. Chandler Head and Ella Anderson portray Jeanette as a youngster as she’s subjected to physical and emotional abuse. It’s okay, though, because her parents love her… right?
That’s the biggest issue with The Glass Castle. Rex and Rose Mary are terrible parents that allow their children to get horribly burnt, go hungry, stay in a dilapidated house, and almost drown. They also steal their money, deprive them of an education, shun them for wanting stability, make promises they don’t intent to keep, make light of spousal abuse, and refuse to make any comprises. Yet, the film expects Jeannette and the audience to forgive them in the end. Sorry, but redemption has to be earned and these two only do a couple nice things that hardly make up for their shortcomings as parents.
To be fair, The Glass Castle isn’t without a few powerful moments that ring true to the nature of dysfunctional families. The scenes between Jeannette and her siblings are especially effective, as they come together and try to survive their chaotic childhood. Larson, Harrelson, and the rest of the cast all deliver deeply emotional performances that almost make this material work. Unfortunately, we all know that it’s building up to a moment where Jeannette inevitably reconciles with her folks and this resolution simply isn’t warranted. If anything, the most sympathetic character in the whole movie is Jeannette’s wealthy fiancé (Max Greenfield), who of course is going to end up alone even though he has the patience of a saint.
Last year we got Captain Fantastic, which also centered on an irresponsible father that took an unconventional approach to raising his kids. The reason that film worked, however, is because our main character eventually realized that he had to swallow his pride and make some changes. The parents here are just selfish SOBs that occasionally do right by their children, but always wind up taking a step backwards. Maybe this would’ve worked if Rex and Rose Mary were intended to be 100% despicable. Since the film tries to shoehorn a happy ending into the equation, however, we’re left with a movie that’s all over the place tonally.