Family dynamics are hurtful, complicated, and one of the best things about life. The Glass Castle is a heartwarmingly-broken look at a family unit stuck within cycles of abuse and neglect, joined together by almost unbreakable bonds of love. Led by Best of the Year-caliber performances and a deeply personal screenplay, Destin Daniel Cretton’s long-awaited directorial follow-up to 2013 indie hit, Short Term 12, is every bit as genuine and intricate as one would expect and hope. Based on the New York Times bestselling autobiographical memoir of the same name, this drama has received a fairly equal share of critical praise and dismissal. However, few films this year have reached, or will reach, the emotional highs and lows achieved almost effortlessly by this film. The Glass Castle is an excellent, troubling, and unforgettable ending to the Summer of 2017.
Jeanette Walls is the second-oldest of four children raised by Rex and Rose Mary, a dysfunctional couple with an almost undeterrable sense of vision and idealism. The four Walls children are talented, extremely intelligent, and tougher than others their age due to the rough, always-on-the-move lifestyle chosen for them by their father. This sounds like a fairly run-of-the-mill premise for a drama. However, despite playing on genre tropes that are already familiar to audiences, The Glass Castle tells a story that felt genuinely new and original due to the power of its character development.
The main reason for this movie’s success lies in its incredible performances, which grounded already compelling characters. Brie Larson proves once again why she is one of this generation’s greatest performers. She turns in a role that rivals her work on Cretton’s previous film, Short Term 12. Larson’s strengths as an actor stem from her ability to display believable brokenness without veering into melodrama. There is no Oscar-bait tear-filled trailer moment in The Glass Castle. Instead, there is a quiet, hurting strength that truly elevates the character of Jeanette to an astounding level of realism and depth. Naomi Watts, after a fairly unimpressive run of films and performances throughout the last few years, returns to form in the role of Rose Mary, Jeanette’s mother. The supporting cast behind Larson, Watts, and Harrelson as Rex all breathe unique life into their roles, rounding out a truly excellent ensemble.
Woody Harrelson’s Rex deserves more detailed, dedicated praise. The patriarchal figure of the Walls household is an alcoholic, angry, abusive man who manipulates his family with delusions of grandeur that are consistently dashed by his own addictions and inadequacies. It could be easily argued that Rex is a horrible father and, beyond that, a bad person. Cretton never strays away from showing the negative effects and the horrifying results of a father’s negligence and irresponsibility. Jeanette and her siblings routinely go without food or proper lodging, and are forced to watch their mentor and role model lash out violently at society and, more troublingly, their mother. However, Harrelson also brings to life one of the most complex, memorable roles of the year. He demonstrates the heart of a man beyond his shortcomings. Moments of heart and love between Rex and his children are written and performed masterfully, forcing audiences to ask difficult questions about the nature of love and its power to outweigh truly damning actions. I still do not entirely know how I feel about the Walls family. In my opinion, that makes The Glass Castle such an important movie. Too often, artists paint with an unrealistically black and white moral color palette; such is not the case here.
Events unfold in The Glass Castle in a non-linear fashion. Scenes jump from the present day to twenty years in the past to any point in between quickly and often. This, more often than not, is done skillfully. However, there are definitely moments where the dramatic steam of a scene is lessened by a context-giving flashback that could have been placed at a less tense moment. The pacing of this film is surprisingly well-structured. Movies that break the two-hour mark are oftentimes overstuffed and drawn out, but there was never a moment where I was not entirely invested in the events unfolding onscreen. With so many characters to juggle, and so much time to condense into a single sitting, Cretton’s creation somehow hits every beat it needs to in order to be a successful tale of love and heartbreak.
Despite the strength of its narrative, and the quality of its delivery, there are structural flaws in the foundation of The Glass Castle. These begin to show themselves most strongly in the movie’s final thirty minutes where, without delving into the realm of spoilers, character arcs and transformations become a bit rushed. Given the surrounding circumstances of these changes, it is moderately excusable and, perhaps, even more realistic this way. However, for some, the paths along which everything winds to a close might feel a bit hollow as a result. With a story so full of complexity and difficult depictions of dysfunction, it is a bit tonally inconsistent for things to end as tidily as they do here.
The other problem worth mentioning that this movie bears is more one of morality than one of cinematic structure. In showing the deeply complicated brokenness and beauty of the Walls family, The Glass Castle veers dangerously close to condoning truly horrible methods of parenting. This goes beyond small-scale anti-establishment lifestyles like last year’s Oscar-nominated Captain Fantastic (which came to mind a few times over the course of Castle) and reaches more sinister levels of physical and psychological abuse. This does not change the way I feel about The Glass Castle as a film, but it will create issues for some viewers who cannot stomach seeing such dark happenings treated so kindly.
Few movies this year have embraced the diversity of individual experience as strongly as Cretton’s follow-up to my favorite movie of all time, Short Term 12. I don’t think many experiences I have had in a theater have affected me as profoundly as this beautiful story. There are flaws, to be sure, but they are completely forgivable in the broader scope of an unforgettable film. After the credits rolled at my showing, an interview played with the real Jeanette Walls, wherein she detailed the process of bringing her life story to the screen. She made the comment that, beyond box office and critical returns, her desire was that this movie would help “people to feel more alive.” I can attest to The Glass Castle accomplishing its purpose. I walked out to my car with a smile on my face and the instant desire to call my parents and tell them that I love them. The creative team behind this movie dedicated it “to all families who, despite their scars, find a way to love.” This universal message of forgiveness and grace make this a movie I cannot recommend enough. Go see it. Go see it with your family. I will definitely be supporting The Glass Castle a few more times in theaters.
Jonathan’s Score: 9/10