Adapting a memoir to the big screen can be a large undertaking. The ability to deftly juggle literary tone with sentimentality and period gets the best of most productions. This divide can split further if the author of said works isn’t the one helping make the transition. Though listed as a consultant, Jeannette Wall’s best selling book, The Glass Castle, rings false note after false note, in film form.
Wall’s work is stirring in a way that elucidates the world of living on, or right below, the poverty line and how inner strength can overcome turmoil and abuse, however terrible it may be. For the most part the film does away with this, taking a softer approach, in the way too many “based on a true story” motion pictures do these days. That dulling of the edge comes fast and too often for The Glass Castle to leave a mark.Presented through the lens of the film, the Walls are wandering nomads. Squatting any place they can call home, until either the bill collectors come calling or the father, Rex (Woody Harrelson), loses yet another job. Whenever his children should question his decisions, he goes on a long winded rant, either decrying the government, speaking to the wonders of nature and filling them in on his latest design for their dream home called, you guessed it, “The Glass Castle.” In times like these he often has a drink in hand, with the oft held belief that most people do their best thinking when they’re in an altered state of comfort. Mother Rose Mary (a frazzled and jittery Naomi Watts) indulges her husband as she’s often either in awe of the man, or at work on another piece of art. She’s so wrapped up in her work that she can’t be made to cook for her children, which leaves young Jeanette with third degree burns round her waist after a battle between the stove and her dress.
Things jump back in time from youthful torment and wide-eyed wonder, to the 80’s in New York, where Brie Larson takes over the reigns as the adult Jeanette. Larson is a pro, understanding how to make her character captivating, intriguing and complex, without making a big show of things, the kind of performance commendable actors are able to turn in just by grace alone. Those who aren’t sure if she’s the real deal should take note here. You have talent to spare when people are praising your performance, instead of the film around them.On the opposite end of the spectrum is Harrelson. While never bad, his part is more spectacle laden, owning more to highlight reels than a studied portrait of the kind of man Rex may see himself. He goes big at every turn, playing up the likable aspects, yet never plumbing the depth that haunts the character. In lesser hands, it would be a buffoonish caricature. Harrelson’s natural charisma instills a fascinating magnetism, making it easy to see why so many could fall under the spell of the patriarch and why it was so easy for them to be convinced to stay in an unhealthy situation.
We can put a name to the pain that plagues the Walls, but aren’t granted a full examination or cathartic release. That’s in part due to the film’s reticence in actually addressing the underlying issue. Instead, it foists fond memories of an eccentrically troubled man, while occasionally fearing his weakness and dependence on the bottle. It’s all dolled up with a nice sheen and gloss that is befitting average Hollywood fluff pieces. Make no mistake, that’s on purpose and part of why The Glass Castle is held back from being special. The desire to make a palpable film to move audience and award voters can be the death knell.Director Destin Daniel Cretton made his debut with the gut wrenching Short Term 12, a week in the life of the inhabitants of a group home for at risk teens. With careful measure, moderation and an understanding of human frailty, it garnered a lot of critical acclaim, but was snubbed by the Academy, which is why it’s such a shame to see that talent pushed towards the showy fare that clogs up so many screens from November to February.
Over the end credits, The Glass Castle provides a form of epilogue that most “true story” films are saddled with these days. Images from the real Walls family dash across the screen, broken up by new and old interviews featuring the Walls clan. It proves to be more illuminating than anything that precedes it. Given the trend, it brings about an interesting question: “with life being more complicated, honest and varied than most films can sometimes be bothered to capture, aren’t such stories as these better served as documentaries?”