‘The Glass Castle’

The best­seller adap­ta­tion is an­chored by Woody Har­rel­son’s per­for­mance

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.tu­ran@la­times.com

Adapted from a best­seller, this dys­func­tional-fam­ily tale is mov­ing.

“I was sit­ting in a taxi, won­der­ing if I had over­dressed for the evening, when I looked out the win­dow and saw Mom root­ing through a Dump­ster.”

That’s the un­nerv­ing first sen­tence of Jean­nette Walls’ 2005 mem­oir, “The Glass Castle,” and its au­da­cious com­bi­na­tion of can­dor, un­sen­ti­men­tal­ity and sheer sto­ry­telling skill il­lus­trates both why it spent 261 weeks on the New York Times best­seller list and why, in­tensely dra­matic though it is, this story was a long shot to be­come the tough and touch­ing film, hon­est and heart­felt, it largely turns out to be.

For to do jus­tice to the flat-out Dick­en­sian child­hood Walls and her siblings ex­pe­ri­enced with the nom­i­nal adults who were both the worst and best of par­ents, it’s nec­es­sary to un­der­stand the bal­ance be­tween break­ing away from and ac­cept­ing a tor­tur­ous past that is the book’s essence.

Di­rec­tor and co-screen­writer Destin Daniel Cret­ton, whose last film was the richly emo­tional “Short Term 12,” is at home with that dy­namic.

Adapt­ing Walls’ book with An­drew Lan­ham, Cret­ton ap­pre­ci­ates, with min­i­mal mis­steps, that the com­plex­i­ties of the par­ent-child con­nec­tion can cre­ate roil­ing emo­tions that are not as mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive as they seem.

Star­ring as Jean­nette is Brie Lar­son, an Oscar win­ner for “Room,” whose em­pa­thetic per­for­mance was the heart of “Short Term 12.” The struc­ture of “Glass Castle,” how­ever, pre­vents her from dom­i­nat­ing in the same way here.

While Walls’ au­tho­rial voice holds the book’s mul­ti­ple time frames to­gether, the na­ture of the nar­ra­tive de­mands that three ac­tresses, Lar­son and two ex­cel­lent pre-teen per­form­ers, Ella Anderson and Chan­dler Head, share the role.

Fill­ing what might oth­er­wise be a con­nec­tiv­ity gap are the only ac­tors we follow through the en­tire film, Naomi Watts and Woody Har­rel­son, as Jean­nette’s way-offthe-grid par­ents, Rose Mary and Rex Walls.

The al­ways re­li­able Watts is ex­cel­lent, bring­ing in­tegrity and strength to the sup­port­ing role of Jean­nette’s mother, a self-ab­sorbed artist who was more in­ter­ested in her work (ex­am­ples of which are in the film) than in her chil­dren.

The heart of the rea­son “Glass Castle” suc­ceeds as well as it does, how­ever, is Har­rel­son’s splen­did star­ring per­for­mance as her un­cat­e­go­riz­able father. Larger than life in both good and bad ways, Rex is bril­liant and dan­ger­ous, both bully and sav­ior, a tor­mented man who in­spired as well as plagued his chil­dren, some­one whose in­creas­ingly se­ri­ous drink­ing and the be­hav­ior it caused un­der­cut the gen­uine love he had for his fam­ily.

The vet­eran Har­rel­son, who has de­scribed his own life as far from con­ven­tional, thor­oughly un­der­stands Rex from the in­side, im­mers­ing him­self in the role of this charis­matic man in a way that al­lows us to see both how com­pelling and how dan­ger­ous a par­ent he was.

“Glass Castle’s” story be­gins in 1989, with Lar­son’s adult Jean­nette firmly es­tab­lished as a Man­hat­tan me­dia fig­ure who writes New York Mag­a­zine’s gos­sipy Intelligencer col­umn.

We’re in­tro­duced to Jean­nette join­ing her fi­ancé, David (Max Green­field), a but­ton-downed fi­nan­cial ad­vi­sor, at din­ner with po­ten­tial clients.

Af­ter din­ner (and af­ter telling David “when it comes to my fam­ily, let me do the ly­ing”), she looks out of a cab win­dow to see her par­ents, who are squat­ting in an aban­doned build­ing, in full Dump­ster-dive mode.

That vi­sion leads to a lunch with Rose Mary, where her mother both tries to walk off with every­thing ed­i­ble that isn’t tied down and tells Jean­nette that her val­ues are all con­fused and she couldn’t pos­si­bly be happy with her ma­te­ri­al­is­tic life.

“Glass Castle’s” struc­ture al­ter­nates that New York present with flash­backs to Jean­nette’s child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences, start­ing at age 3 when, played by Chan­dler Head, she was cook­ing hot dogs over a gas flame and her dress caught on fire.

When of­fi­cious hos­pi­tal au­thor­i­ties (there were no other kind as far as Rex was con­cerned) even­tu­ally ask ques­tions about why none of Jean­nette’s siblings was at school, Rex busts her out of the place and the fam­ily takes off on yet an­other of an end­less se­ries of town changes that hap­pened when things got too dif­fi­cult. Which was of­ten.

Ca­reen­ing off road into a desert when a child men­tions “real school,” Rex pro­claims that “this is as real as it gets. You learn from liv­ing, every­thing else is a damned lie.”

While “Glass Castle” takes pains to show Rex’s pos­i­tive as­pects, like his plan to build the all-glass, so­lar-pow­ered struc­ture that gives the book its name, those wane for Jean­nette (now played by Ella Anderson) once she gets older and Rex’s drink­ing in­creases.

Things get worse once Rex re­luc­tantly moves the fam­ily back to his home­town of Welch, W.Va., (Robin Bartlett is tip­top as in­tim­i­dat­ing mother Erma) and Jean­nette comes to feel that the free­dom her father touts seems a lot like chaos.

These com­plex­i­ties of plot and emo­tion make Walls’ mem­oir a dif­fi­cult feat to pull off as a film. Though he is on less cer­tain ground dur­ing the nar­ra­tive’s mo­ments of warmth than when things are grim, di­rec­tor Cret­ton man­ages it all suc­cess­fully. With Woody Har­rel­son as its de­pend­able lodestar, “The Glass Castle” never loses its sense of direction or its be­lief in where it’s go­ing.

Jake Giles Netter Li­on­s­gate

BRIE LAR­SON por­trays Jean­nette Walls, whose un­usual child­hood and fam­ily are the heart of the film.

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