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The Glass Castle turns a best-selling memoir into a moving but flawed film

Brie Larson and Woody Harrelson star in real-life tale of family dysfunction.

Brie Larson in The Glass Castle
Brie Larson in The Glass Castle
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Writing memoir is really hard, for a simple reason: Our lives are messy. They’re rarely structured like a story, with clearly defined characters, conflict, resolution, and a narrative arc. Sometimes the effects of certain events don’t become evident for years — if they ever do at all.

So to write a memoir, you have to look closely at a pile of seemingly random events from your own life, find the story, and make it compelling to readers. And in writing her 2005 memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls pulled this off — the book, which tells the story of her dysfunctional upbringing, garnered strong reviews, spent 271 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list (more than six years), and sold almost 3 million copies.

And now, 12 years later, the memoir has been adapted into an engaging and often touching film. Though The Glass Castle exhibits some of the common problems that arise when telling true stories (which means it can be frustrating at times), it will still resonate with anyone who has complicated feelings about a complicated family.

The Glass Castle tells the story of a roving, difficult upbringing through parallel timelines

Movies and memoirs alike are rife with difficult parents, but Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson), the ball of charisma and catastrophe at the center of The Glass Castle, is an unusual breed. He’s an alcoholic, a socially conscious hippie drifter, a veteran, a loving father, and something of a genius who hails from the backwoods of Welch, West Virginia.

Woody Harrelson and Ella Anderson in The Glass Castle
Woody Harrelson and Ella Anderson in The Glass Castle.

Rex, his artist wife Rose (Naomi Watts), and their brood of four have spent most of the kids’ childhood as itinerant squatters, moving from one city to another anytime Rex loses his job or gets in trouble with the law or the family’s neighbors. They crisscross the country in a station wagon (later upgraded to a small cargo truck) with their belongings strapped to the top, the kids reading books for their only education. And they continually dream about the “glass castle” the family will build once they settle down, with everyone making requests for architectural features and Rex working on the blueprints at night.

The second eldest of Rex and Rose’s four kids (and Rex’s favorite) is Jeannette, whose story is told through two timelines that cut back and forth in the film. One timeline, set in 1989, stars Brie Larson as grown-up version of the character. Adult Jeannette is a cultured and cosmopolitan gossip columnist at New York magazine; she’s also engaged to a man named David (Max Greenfield, providing most of the film’s comic relief) and navigating a difficult relationship with her parents, who are squatting in a building on the Lower East Side.

The other timeline moves through the family’s years of itinerant life up until they settle in Welch — against Rex’s wishes — shortly before Jeannette reaches her teens. There, they move into a rundown cabin with no electricity or running water that costs $50 a month, and the children’s rough but idyllic childhood slowly collapses into wreckage as Rex descends into alcoholism and Rose stands by, seemingly helpless. Jeannette (played as a child by the excellent Ella Anderson) chafes the most against the family’s lifestyle, while still worshiping her father.

A scene from The Glass Castle
A childhood spent on the road.

Her complicated feelings about Rex are the core of the story, and as The Glass Castle switches between Jeannette’s childhood and adulthood, we start to understand why her feelings surrounding her father are so complicated. Rex is like a larger-than-life outline, and an encounter with him at any point along either of the timelines leaves more questions than answers. Is he neglectful of his children, or is he teaching them to be strong? Is he loving toward his wife, or is he abusive? Is he intelligent and knowledgeable, or just a really good con artist?

Young Jeannette doesn’t have the maturity to really ponder these questions. She just idolizes her dad, even though she knows he also is very flawed. As she ages, though, these contradictions battle within her more and more, till she’s at a breaking point. It’s obvious that she’s made many of her life choices in response to her father’s way of living. But if she doesn’t fully understand her feelings about her father, how can she live with herself?

The Glass Castle sometimes seems willfully blind about its own story

Cutting back and forth between timelines can be tricky in films, because the resulting transitions sometimes feel too forced or jarring. But the approach mostly works in The Glass Castle, as guided by the sure hand of director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), who also shares screenplay credits with Andrew Lanham.

Cretton clearly has a knack for working with actors. Harrelson is fantastic, as is the entire child cast. But Larson, strangely enough, never seems to find her way into her role, playing adult Jeannette with a kind of vagueness that makes some the character’s choices seem unmotivated. That may be the fault of the screenplay, which doesn’t quite fill out her character — she’s at the core of the story, but she seems somehow less than three-dimensional — and meanders to an end that feels unearned.

A scene from The Glass Castle
The Glass Castle.

But it’s hard to argue with a story that draws on real life. These characters — as the home video that plays over the credits remind us — are real people, after all. And if Jeannette is her father’s daughter, it makes sense that her character doesn’t totally add up. Rex doesn’t really, either.

The problem is that, while watching the film, one gets the sense that events from Walls’s memoir have been compressed in a way that squeezes out some of the meaning-making details, details that help shape the story and give it purpose. That’s not unusual in movies based on real events, which struggle, like memoir, to isolate a “story” in the midst of someone’s entire life.

But as a result, The Glass Castle seems to be missing a sense of purpose. Is it a story about self-realization, or about feeling conflicted about a parent, or about how parents mess up their kids, or about realizing that your parents were right all along, or something else entirely?

The film seems to want to have it a few different ways, drawing on all of those emotional threads at once, and in the end they crash into one another in an unwieldy manner. For most of the movie’s runtime, it seems like a story about coming to grips with your complicated feelings about the past, but by the end, some of the complexity seems to have evaporated.

Max Greenfield and Brie Larson in The Glass Castle
Max Greenfield and Brie Larson in The Glass Castle.

At times, it even feels a bit blind. Since memoir relies on an individual person’s memory — and memory fades and morphs over time — this may be inevitable. But it also means that The Glass Castle’s view of Rex sometimes feels skewed. Viewed through one lens, Rex is a complicated and flawed but ultimately loving father. But viewed through another, he’s a controlling egomaniac with an abusive hold on his wife and children, and it can feel eerily like the movie (and its characters) are woefully oblivious to that.

How audiences react to Rex likely will depend on people’s individual experiences, which are impossible to control for. Jeannette Walls, at least in the film, remembers her father fondly, even through all the murk of the past. Those who can take her view of him will find The Glass Castle to be vibrant, interesting, moving, and maybe even cathartic.

The Glass Castle opens in theaters on August 11.

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