Note: This review contains spoilers about certain key events as they are depicted in “The Glass Castle,” which is based on a non-fiction memoir.
When horrible, selfish, criminally negligent parents cloak themselves as independent-thinking free spirits that encourage their children to reject society’s norms, I would describe those parents in this manner:
Horrible. Selfish. And criminally negligent.
No lenience for being colorful.
“The Glass Castle” is based on the brave and beautifully written 2005 memoir from journalist Jeannette Walls about growing up with her three siblings in the poverty and chaos created by their highly dysfunctional parents: Rex, an irresponsible alcoholic who bounces the family from town to town, and Rose Mary, a self-proclaimed artist who enables Rex for decades and shares equal responsibility for the neglect of their children.
Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton’s adaptation of Walls’ memoir, which bounces back and forth between Jeannette’s childhood in the 1960s and 1970s and her life as a young adult in the late 1980s, stars Woody Harrelson as Rex and Naomi Watts as Rose Mary, with Brie Larson as the adult Jeannette. (Harrelson and Watts play Rex and Rose Mary throughout the timeline. Chandler Head and Ella Anderson play younger versions of Jeannette.)
It’s a well-made film with strong performances, and it by no means shies away from some of the more shocking and tragic episodes from Jeannette’s upbringing. But when “The Glass Castle” reaches for late-movie moments of closure and self-revelations and forgiveness, and even something of a celebration of Rex’s supposed bohemian idealism and love for his children, it rings sour and false.
We spend the better part of two hours witnessing Rex committing crimes, endangering his children’s safety and allowing them to go hungry for days as he goes on benders. When Rex’s monster of a mother (who abused Rex as a child) is caught trying to molest his own son, Rex flies into a rage — not at his mother, but at his daughters for stirring up trouble.
And in the scenes set in 1989, when the children are grown and Jeannette (Brie Larson) is working in Manhattan as a gossip columnist and is engaged to a successful financial adviser, David (Max Greenfield), Rex and Rose Mary have moved to New York and are living as squatters, and they’re STILL making Jeannette’s live miserable.
Judgmental even as she wolfs down the fancy lunch Jeannette is paying for, Rose Mary tells Jeannette, “Your values are all confused.” In other scenes, Rex torments David, forcing drinks on him, mocking him as a sellout and challenging him to an arm-wrestling contest to prove he’s a better man.
Except Rex is not a better man, regardless of how the arm-wrestling match turns out.
Even though David is something of a caricature of an uptight, image-conscious, upwardly mobile, late 1980s Manhattan money guy, and he might not be the best potential life partner for Jeannette, he loves her and he respects her. When “The Glass Castle” tries to mine comedic relief from Rex intimidating and even physically assaulting David, painting David as a whiny victim, it comes across as tone-deaf. We’ve already seen far too many examples of Rex as a do-nothing coward.
“The Glass Castle” is overflowing with metaphors. For years, Rex was drawing up plans for an actual Glass Castle he was going to build for the family — a transparent house — even as Rex and Rose Mary were in denial and were shielding their children from the outside world.
As a very young child, Jeannette suffers horrible burns when she’s left alone to cook for the family — but Rex rationalizes parental neglect by telling Jeannette her scars represent the fire burning within every member of their unique family.
When a young Jeannette clings to the edge of a swimming pool, afraid to let go, Rex grabs her and throws her into water deep enough to drown her, not once, not twice, but three times. He justifies this terrifying experience by telling his little girl she’s going to have to learn to sink or swim in this world.
We root for Jeannette and her siblings throughout this story. We admire their resilience and their strength.
But a film that presents overwhelming evidence of Rex and Rose Mary as appalling human beings for 90 percent of the journey, and then asks us to give them a break?
Lionsgate presents a film directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and written by Creston and Andrew Lanham, based on the book by Jeannette Walls. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking). Running time: 127 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.