“THE GLASS CASTLE” — 4 stars — Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Max Greenfield; PG-13 (mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking); in general release
Based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls, “The Glass Castle” is the story of how a woman learned to love her family and pull the good from her unique and troubled childhood. It is one of the best films of 2017 so far.
We meet Jeannette (Brie Larson) in 1989, on a dinner date with her financial analyst fiancé, David (Max Greenfield), at a swank Manhattan restaurant. Jeannette is a successful writer for New York Magazine and the picture of up-and-coming metropolitan success. Then on the cab ride home, she and David pass her parents rooting through dumpsters on the city streets.
This jarring juxtaposition is explained through a series of childhood flashbacks that weave in and out of Jeannette’s adult narrative, which has her struggling to reconcile her new lifestyle with her parents, who have been squatting in an abandoned building on New York’s Lower East Side ever since their children have relocated to the city.
From the outset, it is clear why Jeannette’s childhood deserves consideration. Led by her brilliant, eccentric and alcoholic father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), and her oil-painting mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), Jeannette’s family spends her childhood on the move, hopping from home to home as Rex skips from job to job. Rex claims their lifestyle is pure freedom, but more often than not, Jeannette and her three siblings are uprooted as a result of his substance abuses. In one early case, the family skips out on hospital bills after young Jeannette (Chandler Head) burns herself boiling hot dogs unattended.
Rex is a reservoir of knowledge, an aspiring engineer who dreams of building his family a glass castle powered by solar panels and innovative technologies, yet the family camps under the stars in Joshua Tree National Park and holes up in a weather-beaten home in a rural Utah town. Eventually, they find an element of stability in Rex’s hometown of Welch, West Virginia, where proximity to his abusive mother, Erma (Robin Bartlett), reveals the hard truths behind her son’s unpredictable ways.
We see all of this through Jeannette’s eyes, which see Rex in all his glory and all of his terror as her naïve childhood adulation gradually gives way to the reality that her father has crippled her and her siblings. As the kids bond together and resolve to break free of their circumstances, the flashbacks begin to tie into the adult narrative that has a fully independent Jeannette ready to leave her father behind for good as she starts a family of her own. The finale, which contains skillful echoes of the film’s early moments, is immensely satisfying and moving.
With Jeannette as narrator, director Destin Daniel Cretton builds a powerful and vivid portrait of a troubled father-daughter relationship that will leave viewers thinking of their fathers, regardless of whether they were wonderful or awful. Larson is fantastic as Walls, but for Harrelson, the role of Rex is a true achievement. You never really see him doing anything he hasn’t brought to previous parts; rather you get the feeling that Rex is the role he has been building toward his entire career.
Cretton gives “The Glass Castle” an epic grace that, while emotionally exhausting, never feels contrived or heavy-handed. It’s the kind of movie you may only see once, but it is one of the most moving and sincere portraits of family togetherness to come to the screen in some time. This one will stick with you.
“The Glass Castle” is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking; running time: 127 minutes.