‘The Glass Castle’ is a coming-of-age film that stars Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts. USA TODAY
The Glass Castle offers up a movie clan to beat in terms of complete dysfunction, though the brutal and heart-wrenching film is in its own way just as much of a mess.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), the family drama (** out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday) takes Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir about her tumultuous nomadic childhood to the big screen, but the adaptation is flawed in its execution, with frequent humorous moments failing to jibe with several instances of abuse and cruelty. Gripping performances from Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson, though, rise above the melodrama to craft the film’s best and most emotional sequences.
Larson stars as the adult Jeannette in 1989 when she’s a successful New York City gossip columnist — and former USA TODAY reporter — who’s recently engaged to a financial adviser (Max Greenfield as the resident comic relief) yet is estranged from her homeless parents Rex (Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), going so far as to ignore them when she sees them picking through trash on the streets of Manhattan.
It seems harsh until the flashbacks begin showing the travails Jeannette goes through as a young child (Chandler Head), preteen (Ella Anderson) and high schooler (Larson) as her family bounces from town to town, state to state, when bill collectors and/or the local cops come, usually for something their hard-drinking father has done. Mom and Dad try to pass their frustrating existence off as a grand adventure: One nugget from the pater familias goes, “You learn from living. Everything else is a damn lie.” But the truth is, theirs is not a good, safe home. At all.
Rex is a smart, loving dad wanting to teach his four children science and architecture when he’s sober, yet a mean, spiteful drunk who can’t rid himself of the bottle. And Rose Mary’s not much more of a model parent: A self-proclaimed artist, she can’t stop painting long enough to make her kids lunch, and when it’s apparent that they’re stuck in an untenable position living in squalor, Jeannette — the second-oldest child of the brood — makes a pact with her brother and sisters to be there for each other and escape when they’re old enough.
The neglect, violence and molestation will get one’s blood boiling and are hard to watch in their rawness, yet tonal whiplash abounds when they’re followed or preceded by something more lighthearted. The movie also manages to wear out its welcome in terms of running time yet still short-shrift the feelings of Jeannette’s siblings, who each seem to have feelings about their unfortunate situation that are left unexplored in the end.
It’s hard to imagine why a family could remain any sort of unit after what unfolds, though Larson and Harrelson’s scenes together at least give the movie the humanity it sorely needs — Harrelson especially is noteworthy in balancing fearful menace and tearful regret. As different as they seem, Jeannette and Rex are stubborn independent spirits of the same ilk who fight for what they believe and, at their core, they most believe in each other.
While the film at times shows cracks, the two actors, giving their own mini-masterclass, are the glue that keeps Glass Castle’s narrative from completely shattering.