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The Glass Castle

THE GLASS CASTLE

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Cast: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Chandler Head, Max Greenfield, Sarah Snook, Sadie Sink, Olivia Kate Rice, Josh Caras, Charlie Shotwell, Iain Armitage, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Shree Crooks, Eden Grace Redfield, Robin Bartlett, Joe Pingue

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking)

Running Time: 2:07

Release Date: 8/11/17


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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 10, 2017

What should we think of the father in The Glass Castle? The film doesn't seem sure, and that is, perhaps, the right way to approach this material, which isn't quite as simple as its tearful, dual finale suggests. This is a man who tells his young daughter that he has spent most of his life being chased by a demon. The girl doesn't understand what her father means, of course. It's not until years later that she can even comprehend a possible meaning for the sinister metaphor that seems to be behind her dad's every behavior, choice, and attitude throughout his life.

A simple story would make the eventual revelation of utmost importance to the story and the character, with the previously unspoken thing serving as a rationale, an excuse, or even a justification for the pain and uncertainty through which the father has put his family. That's not the case here. No one says it directly, because how could a young girl, who now understands that a man she thought she knew actually is a well of inexplicable pain and confusion, look her father in the eyes and say what he has never said? For that matter, how could a father look his daughter in the eyes and divulge something so terrible?

If the man wanted to have an excuse for what he has done in his life, he certainly has one. The fact that he doesn't even voice the truth means that he doesn't want an excuse. He may not understand his problems enough to fix them, but at least he knows that they are his problems—not his wife's, not his daughter's, not those of any of his other three children. Director Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham's screenplay decides upon the same approach: It'll help us understand what has made the father into the man he is, but it won't make excuses for him. That would be too simple.

The film is based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls, who's played by three different actresses at four different points in her life. At the start, in 1989, Jeannette (played by Brie Larson from teenager to adult) is living in New York City, writing a gossip column for a local newspaper, and engaged to David (Max Greenfield). While taking a taxi home after a business dinner, the cab bumps into a homeless man, whose wife is digging through some garbage on the sidewalk. They're her parents.

The story here moves back and forth between Jeannette's life in the city, trying to move past her childhood, and her childhood as the member of a family of vagabonds, led by her father Rex (Woody Harrelson). Rex can't hold a job long enough to rent a place, let alone buy one, and the family's stops in various places are usually interrupted when Rex gets into some legal trouble on account of his excessive drinking.

The rest of Jeannette's (played by Chandler Head as a young child and Ella Anderson as an older one) family includes her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), her elder sister (played by Olivia Kate Rice as a pre-teen, Sadie Sink as a teenager, and Sarah Snook as an adult), a younger brother named Brian (played by Iain Armitage as a young kid, Charlie Shotwell as an older one, and Josh Caras as an adult), and baby sister Maureen (played by—in the previously established order—Eden Grace Redfield, Shree Crooks, and Brigette Lundy-Paine). It's a somewhat quirky story at first, since Jeannette can only see what she has grown up to believe is normal. She knows that other kids go to school, but Rex has taught his kids that reading books on their own is as good an education as they could get. Rex has promised everyone that they'll settle down one day in a castle that he's designing.

We know better, pretty much from the start of the flashbacks, when Jeannette catches on fire while cooking, because her mother is too busy painting. As she gets older, it becomes clearer that her parents are in a co-dependent relationship, that her father's intense mood swings are tied to his alcoholism (He gives her warm talks about standing up to her fears, but he also throws her into the water to teach her how to swim before she's ready), and that the only people on whom she can really count are her siblings. Later on, while visiting her paternal grandmother (played by Robin Bartlett), she interrupts an act of abuse that might explain the demon from which her father is running.

It would be easy for Cretton to turn this material into something uplifting—about escaping such circumstances, since we know that she has, or learning to accept even the most dysfunctional family as family, despite the problems. The climax, in which Jeannette must decide how to feel about her father, certainly leans toward the latter kind of uplift, but even then, it's shrouded in things—especially that one thing—left unsaid. There's an ending, for sure, but Cretton and Lanham avoid simplistic closure, particularly in the film's final shot, which moves in on Jeannette's face as she still seems undecided about the man.

Despite the focus on Jeannette's past and present, The Glass Castle is really about Rex, played by Harrelson with a deep level of pained regret and resentment. It's as if Cretton and Lanham found more dramatic possibilities in that character than in their main one, who remains an aloof presence, despite Larson's fine performance. That diminishes the narrative a bit, but the film still serves as a thorny study of a family that cannot reconcile its past, let alone escape it.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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