The Glass Castle

We’ve seen plenty of cinematic stories about dysfunctional families, even those that embrace their shortcomings. But in The Glass Castle, it’s less about the eccentricities of the parents and more about the lingering effects on their children.

The flawed if fascinating film adaptation of the bestselling memoir by Jeannette Walls softens some of the episodes of her troubled childhood from which she emerged remarkably well-adjusted, perhaps in an effort to position itself for mainstream big-screen consumption.

Yet despite its muddled structure, the strong performances and even-handed perspective on irregular parenting and lasting family bonds successfully translates most of the narrative texture from page to screen.

The film tells parallel stories of Walls’ relationship to her family both as a child and as a young adult. She and three siblings grew up in the Appalachian foothills during the 1960s, living a nomadic lifestyle subject to the whims of her father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), whose grifting and fiercely independent methods were borderline abusive if rooted in good intentions — not to mention life lessons about resourcefulness and nonconformity.

Her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) was an artist and caregiver who despite some ideological differences with Rex, tolerated his outbursts and remained loyal.

The parallel storyline finds Walls (Brie Larson) living in New York during the late 1980s, working as a gossip columnist in New York and trying to reconcile her feelings about her family, particularly her impoverished parents, while preparing to marry a financial adviser (Max Greenfield).

The film marks the second collaboration between Larson and director Destin Cretton (Short Term 12), who also co-wrote the screenplay. His stylish visual approach captures the family’s impulsive lifestyle and rejection of conventional authority.

Harrelson offers a ferocious and fully committed performance that recalls Viggo Mortensen’s Oscar-nominated work in Captain Fantastic, which would make an intriguing companion piece.

Some might feel sympathy for Rex — whose motives and possible condition aren’t fully clarified — while others express contempt. Although the film makes its stance a bit too clear, it leaves just enough ambiguity so that both sides can find emotional common ground.

The Glass Castle struggles to bring its two time periods together (and might have been better off focusing exclusively on one or the other), even if it also sidesteps clichés about redemption or nostalgia. You don’t need to share the film’s optimism to appreciate its authenticity.


Rated PG-13, 127 minutes.