The Glass Castle
To paraphrase an oft-repeated line of Tolstoy’s, every unhappy family is unique in their own way. Jeannette Walls, a well-established gossip columnist, first for New York Mag, and later for MSNBC, wrote a memoir about her surprisingly wild (and dirt poor) upbringing, with her two sisters and brother being led by the nose by their brilliant, slightly unhinged alcoholic father, and their loving but self-involved artist mother, at a time when no one would have suspected such an accomplished urbanite would have come from such a hard-scrabble existence in rural West Virginia.
Walls’ father, Rex, was something of a madman, but his eccentric iconoclasm masked his own brutish childhood, pockmarked by abuse and neglect. Together with Walls’ mother, Rose Mary, an artist with her own sort of wild streak, the pair lived almost perpetually on the run in the ’60s and ’70s, escaping creditors and the law by lighting out and finding a new place in a different state to put up
It’s the kind of childhood story that practically begs for the encompassing interpretation and distance of a memoir, and by all accounts, Walls, already an accomplished writer, succeeded wildly in her efforts. So, why is it that a film from an accomplished director (Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12), with a bevy of excellent actors (Oscar-winner Brie Larson plays the adult Walls; Woody Harrelson plays Rex; and Naomi Watts, Rose Mary), based on such a powerful and evocative memoir come out as flat as one of the many desert prairies the family encamps upon overnight?
Part of the issue is the nature of the narrative. Walls’ story is certainly specific and unique in its way, but Cretton, working from his adaptation along with Andrew Lanham, reduces many of the scenes down to easily recognized bits. There’s the scene with the father cavorting around wildly with the exuberant kids, making gray wolf calls they all answer to; the growing disaffection with the teenage Walls (played by Ella Anderson), beginning to see her father’s alcoholism for what it is, the driving force of his life, constantly leading them to wrack and ruin; the obligatory scenes of the accomplished cosmopolitan Walls with her investment banker husband (Max Greenfield), at chic client dinners, her self-alienation eventually proving to her the error of her judgment. Even the film’s more powerful scenes, one of which has the daughter finally confronting her father for filling their heads with dreams and ideas he had no plan on completing, feels somehow rote, as if each melody line were lifted from an existing song.
It’s possible it’s the form itself. Between the work of Mary Karr, Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here, and Tobias Wolff ’s This Boy’s Life, and Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors and many others, we have witnessed the particular horror of small children being led around by halfmad parents on idiosyncratic journeys of the soul over and over again. We’ve seen and read so many of these stories of wild-eyed fathers and clinically depressed mothers hauling their kids around the country in a perpetual search for emotional truth that at this point, the genre feels as set in its tropes as an ’80s slasher flick.
Another burden customary to the burgeoning genre is a heavy reliance on slightly over-ripe metaphors — take this memoir’s title, which has to do with Rex’s fixation on building the family a seethrough mansion from which they will be able to look up and view the stars. But don’t stop there. Practically everything Rex does to young Jeannette, including teaching her to swim by throwing her into the deep part of the pool, putting her at sexual risk with an old school buddy, and challenging her fiance to arm-wrestle — feels like the stuff of overdone theatricality. I have no doubt of Rex’s distinctive personality manifestations, but far too often the film lopes into a kind of standard deviation. He’s just crazy enough to be interesting, and just irascible enough to be lovable.
This comes at no fault to Harrelson, who imbues Rex with the wounded spirit of a shaman, while stuffing his head with the ringing endorsement of his own self-congratulation. To Rex, the family’s many obstacles, very often caused directly by him, aren’t signs of his narcissism and inability to cope. Instead, he sees them as distinguishing points of honor, the way they are superior to everyone else. The saps who live their lives according to the rules, are just perpetually scared and ultimately unworthy of his attention. In one potent scene, Rex, furious at his kids’ combative treatment of his abusive, ogre-like mother Erma (Robin Bartlett) has a showdown with young Jeannette in the family car. Several months sober, he wants to chuck it and hit the town to drown his pain, but his young daughter refuses his order to get out of the car. Harrelson glares at her from the rearview mirror with such menace that he seems capable of almost any kind of devilry in order to get his way.
But too often, the film flits around on airy wings. It’s perfectly understandable why Harrelson would be drawn to the script, far less so for poor Watts, whose character mainly chatters on the sidelines, allowing her man to run roughshod over their affairs until all is but lost. Larson, coming off an Oscar win, certainly has the chops, but
by her stage of the character, most of the most emotionally grueling work has already been accomplished. Apart from a handful of scenes before she finally leaves home, she gets to play the Walls character already reveling in her own urban fantasia, which somehow feels like a lost opportunity.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film, though it has certainly been made more glossy and smooth than the source text, but there’s not much to really resonate, either. Walls happened to be at the screening I attended, and at the elongated Q and A at the end, she remarked on the unique strangeness of seeing her childhood re-created and on full display in front of such a crowd. I couldn’t help but wonder if, in her reaction, there was also the realization that her family had been transformed into such easily understood dramatic caricatures. It’s the price one has to pay for such projects, it would seem. The question that lingers is whether it was worth it.
Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson), daughter Maureen (Eden Grace Redfield), wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), son Brian (Charlie Shotwell), daughter Jeannette (Ella Anderson) and daughter Lori (Sadie Sink) somehow form a family in The Glass Castle, a film based on writer Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir.