Jeannette Walls’ harrowing, moving family memoir “The Glass Castle” spent a lot of time on bestseller lists after it was released in 2005, and now it’s finally been turned into a movie.
Walls grew up in a nomadic, basically anarchic family with a scheming, spiteful, alcoholic father who also taught her to see the beauty in the world. Brie Larson plays Walls, Woody Harrelson plays her dad, and Naomi Watts plays her mother.
Why you should care: It’s a powerful story of a woman becoming independent while retaining family ties.
The central dynamic of the Walls family is that everyone is overwhelming. If you’re someone who’s never gone to a traditional school, spent your life in a new town every few months, and have a father as wild and wily as Rex Walls, it’s hard to breathe.
“The Glass Castle” is about Walls becoming disillusioned with her upbringing and scraping her own way to independence, while also striking a balance and maintaining a relationship with her other family members.
What’s hot: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts are all excellent.
The movie’s timeline spans over the course of around 25 years, following Walls from childhood to her becoming a gossip columnist for New York magazine. Walls, therefore, is played by several different actresses of uneven talent. But when Larson is onscreen, she’s potent. For the first half of the movie (it skips across time), she’s in a quiet fury, which explodes in the second half.
Harrelson successfully pulls off Rex Walls, a tricky character for any actor, with domineering body language and theatrical flourishes. Naomi Watts is, as always, a chameleon, almost unrecognizable as the eccentric and demure Rose Mary Walls. All together — and along with the actors who play the other Walls siblings — they’re a dynamic family.
Many critics have pointed out that the movie diverges from the book in one big way: it’s tone. The memoir is written in a frank, dispassionate voice that culminates in power over time. The movie wears its emotions on its sleeve instead of going documentary-style. I didn’t mind. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, who previously made “Short Term 12” with Larson, openly sympathizes with his characters, which is what makes them so identifiable instead of off-putting.
What’s not: It gets a little hokey.
But there are admitted drawbacks to being emotionally explicit. Cretton occasionally compresses complicated family dynamics into simplistic notes. One example is where Rex threw Jeannette into a pool over and over again, trying to teach her how to swim. It’s harrowing to see Jeannette nearly drown and then just get tossed into the water again when she tries to hold on to the side of the pool. Cretton ends the moment with a groan-worthy quote: “I can’t let you cling to the side your whole life,” Rex says. “You gotta sink or swim.”
There are a handful of corny moments like that.
The Walls are also a family who lives in poverty, and many times I couldn’t help but notice that some of the details didn’t seem quite right. For example, everyone wore clean, well-fitted clothing throughout the film that seemed a bit too expensive for a family who couldn’t afford to feed their children.
The bottom-line: It’s a moving adaptation of the memoir.
“The Glass Castle” is one of those examples of the book being better than the movie, but it’s still an excellent movie. If you like family dramas, especially father-daughter dramas, definitely watch it.
“The Glass Castle” hits theaters on Friday.
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