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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024