MOVIE RE­VIEW: “Glass Castle” un­der­cuts it­self

★★¼5 Rated PG-13. 127 min­utes.

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Stephanie Merry

Jean­nette Walls’ no­madic, free­wheel­ing child­hood was of­ten a dream — ex­cept when it was a night­mare. The jour­nal­ist wrote about her un­ortho­dox up­bring­ing, which left her scarred, both lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, in her 2005 mem­oir “The Glass Castle,” which is now a film star­ring Oscar-win­ner Brie Lar­son.

The movie be­gins in 1989, with Jean­nette work­ing as a gos­sip colum­nist for New York Mag­a­zine. Per­fectly coifed and per­pet­u­ally in pumps, she’s the 1980s ideal of the fe­male pro­fes­sional who has it all, right down to her Wall Street fi­ance (Max Green­field). One night, sit­ting in the back seat of a taxi on her way home from a fancy din­ner, she no­tices a woman rum­mag­ing through garbage cans. Just then, a man emerges from the shad­ows and starts yelling at her driver. These two, we learn, are her mother and father — now squat­ters liv­ing on the Lower East Side. Al­though she still keeps in touch with them, Jean­nette isn’t en­tirely sure that she wants to.

Cross­cut­ting be­tween scenes set in the present day and flash­backs to Jean­nette’s child­hood, the movie shows us what looks, at first blush, like a ro­man­tic ad­ven­ture. Jeanette and her three siblings are home­schooled, be­cause, as their father, Rex (Woody Har­rel­son), de­clares, “You learn by liv­ing.” The fam­ily is con­stantly on the move, pil­ing into a sta­tion wagon and head­ing, seem­ingly, wher­ever the wind takes them. At one point, Rex pulls off a desert road and the kids’ artist mother (Naomi Watts) spots a Joshua tree that she feels a deep need to paint.

Get com­fort­able, Rex tells the kids — we’ll be sleep­ing here tonight.

Ella Anderson, who plays the 10-year-old Jean­nette, does a lovely job por­tray­ing a starry-eyed daugh­ter who idol­izes her father. And Rex’s ap­peal is clear: He’s a charis­matic dreamer with a bril­liant streak. (The film’s ti­tle refers to his pipe dream of build­ing an all­glass man­sion for the fam­ily to live in.) He seems to know a lit­tle bit about every­thing, in­clud­ing all the ways that “the sys­tem,” as he calls it, has worked against his fam­ily.

Slowly, though, it be­comes clear that he’s also a cruel and abu­sive drunk whose idea of teach­ing his daugh­ter how to swim is her in the deep end — again and again. The real rea­son he keeps up­root­ing the fam­ily is that he can’t hold down a job, and he has been avoid­ing bill col­lec­tors.

In­evitably, Jean­nette be­gins to no­tice, as chil­dren will, that the cracks in the fa­cade have be­come crevasses. Her trans­for­ma­tion pro­vides the movie’s most poignant turn of events, de­spite — or per­haps be­cause of — the fact that it’s con­veyed more sub­tly than the drama’s big emo­tional set pieces. Even­tu­ally, her grow­ing aware-throw­ing ness har­dens into bit­ter­ness, which is how Jeanette ends up in Man­hat­tan look­ing like Ca­reer Girl Bar­bie.

The movie’s past and present nar­ra­tives are like two trains run­ning in op­po­site di­rec­tions. As a child, Jean­nette comes to re­al­ize that her father isn’t a god. The ques­tion is: Will she come to un­der­stand, as an adult, that he’s also not a mon­ster?

Any com­ing-of-age movie set in such a dys­func­tional en­vi­ron­ment is go­ing to have its tear­jerk­ing mo­ments. And di­rec­tor Destin Daniel Cret­ton (who pre­vi­ously worked with Lar­son on “Short Term 12”) knows how to de­ploy slow-mo­tion for max­i­mum sen­ti­ment. But the movie of­ten un­der­cuts it­self by spell­ing things out rather than hint­ing at them, be­la­bor­ing emo­tions and ideas to en­sure that the au­di­ence un­der­stands what the char­ac­ters are feel­ing and think­ing.

Still, the movie may hit home for any­one who has ever won­dered how much of our iden­tity is shaped by na­ture vs. nur­ture.

Jake Giles Netter, Li­on­s­gate

From left, Sadie Sink, Char­lie Shotwell, Ella Anderson (fore­ground cen­ter), Woody Har­rel­son, Naomi Watts and Eden Grace Red­field in “The Glass Castle.”

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