The Glass Castle is an adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ memoir of the same name about her unmoored childhood with her alcoholic father and enabler mother. I think it’s supposed to be a heart-warming, family-above-all-else, I Survived tale in which we celebrate Jeannette overcoming the hardship of her youth to find success as a writer, but the ending is so f*cked up I’m not actually sure what even is the moral of the story. Starring a roster of great talent including Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, and Brie Larson—who reunites with her Short Term 12 director, Destin Daniel Cretton—and featuring a breakout performance by the “young Jeannette” actress, Ella Anderson (The Boss), The Glass Castle is an overlong waste of everyone’s time.
The movie cuts between Jeannette as an adult, living in New York working as a gossip columnist, and engaged to the affable David (Max Greenfield, basically doing Schmidt), and her childhood spent fleeing across America with her family crammed into a station wagon as debt collectors and police chase the Walls family from one town to the next. Eventually they settle in Welch, West Virginia, and live in a run-down hillbilly death trap in the hollers. Desperate to escape a life of neglect and various forms of abuse, the Walls siblings pull together to help each other get out, one at a time.
Papa Walls, Rex (Harrelson), is a drunk who can’t keep a job and steals from his kids. Harrelson is capable of swinging between the charming con artist who teaches his kids constellations and “gives” stars for Christmas presents, and the enraged monster who terrorizes his family. Mama Wells, Rose Mary (Watts), is an artist who enables her husband because she, presumably, is too deeply victimized to imagine life without Rex. The reason given in the movie is that she loves Rex because one time he complimented her paintings, but at the point that her children are starving and badly injured—Jeannette is seriously burned in an accident brought on by utter neglect—you have to assign some deeper motivation than that. The film, co-written by director Cretton and Andrew Lanham (The Shack), is barely interested in Rose Mary as a person, so she remains largely inscrutable as anything other than a victim-enabler of Rex’s terrible alcoholism.
Castle has the most bizarre attitude toward Rex. Perhaps Walls’ book offers more context, but the movie shows Rex as alternately spiteful, destructive, abusive, and untrustworthy, only to suddenly, right at the end, forgive him for everything. For half a second, it seems like The Glass Castle is going to be a brutally frank look at life with an addict—which tonally would fit with the emotionally crushing work Cretton and Larson did together in Short Term 12—but Castle quickly deteriorates into mealy platitudes about family that are especially toothless in the face of the Walls children’s suffering. Castle wants to say something about the cycle of abuse, but it refuses to get ugly enough to upset people. It hints around the abuse Rex may have suffered as a child, and presents Jeannette and her siblings as ultimately forgiving of their father, but we’ve seen way too much bad sh*t happen for such a quick emotional turnaround and the forgiveness coda falls flat.
I assume Walls’ book is more illuminating about her emotional journey with her father, but the movie, even at over two hours long, can’t manage a balanced arc. Larson and the cast do solid work, but it’s really hard to get on board with the reversal in tone at the end. The cues within the movie are just all wrong. Joel West’s score is telling us everything is fine, but it feels like we just spent two-plus hours watching a guy destroy his children. The scene where Jeannette realizes she can’t run from her childhood features David being so understanding you wonder why she’s leaving him. There is an arm wrestling scene that plays for laughs while totally ignoring how Rex may have passed his bullying ways on to his daughter. There’s a disconnect between what the movie is trying to make you feel, and what you’re actually feeling. The Glass Castle wants to be an old-fashioned weepy but the story borders more on horror.