The Glass Castle is a deeply-felt adaptation of journalist Jeannette Walls’s best-selling memoir about growing up with impoverished and irresponsible parents. The story is told piecemeal and in retrospect, with Brie Larson as the adult Jeannette, who has made a success of herself and turned her back on her mother and father. The challenge she faces is coming to terms with the fact that for all their quirks, and even cruelty, they always loved her. An emotional high-wire act like that is tough for any movie to take on, and the results are less than perfect.
Larson does a fine job playing the sleek, uptight New York magazine columnist who’s about to marry a finance manager (Max Greenfield ). But with relatively little screen time, she is outshone by Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts as her parents. The part of the father is a perfect fit for Harrelson: he’s a dreamer and idealist who has a special relationship with his oldest daughter. We’ve seen him play guys like this before, which robs the robust performance of its fullest impact. The screenplay doesn’t help by chronicling so many of his countless screw-ups; we get the idea early on.
Watts has a less showy part and disappears completely into her character, a simple woman who cares more about her love of painting than she does raising four innocent children who often go hungry.
Destin Daniel Cretton, who made the unforgettable Short Term 12, adapted the book with Andrew Lanham and brings a sharp eye and enormous empathy to the material. The Glass Castle pulls no punches in depicting the strange odyssey of Jeannette Walls and her siblings, which makes it tough to watch at times. (That they managed to reach adulthood and lead productive lives is nothing short of miraculous.) To his great credit, Cretton treats all the characters with respect and allows us to decide what we think of them without being baited or hit over the head.
Yet somehow the parts seem greater than the whole. In his effort to be faithful, Cretton may have overindulged instead of shaping or compressing the wide-ranging story. There are still considerable rewards: I won’t soon forget Harrelson and Watts’s performances, or young Ella Anderson, who plays Jeannette as a girl; the camera loves her. But I was upset by the use of home movie footage of the actual Walls family at the end of the film. Sometimes this familiar device is illuminating, but in this case it undermined the potency of the actors’ work that preceded it, at least for me. I invested in Harrelson and Watts and Larson; this is a dramatized version of the story, after all, and I would have preferred to have them remain the Walls family in my mind.