Based on Jeanette Walls’ popular memoir, Destin Daniel Cretton’s The Glass Castle is a mish-mash of opposing tones and a herky-jerky structure that lacks momentum. This is frustrating because I was a fan of Cretton’s Short Term 12 (2013), and the film has one of those understated yet respectable casts that should make for a better movie. But there’s something missing in The Glass Castle that keeps it from being the kind of haughty Oscar bait it very casually wants to be.
Much of the confusion seems to come from The Glass Castle never quite settling on an understanding of what it is exactly. Basically, the film follows the life of Jeannette, played by Brie Larson in adulthood and Ella Anderson (The Boss) and Chandler Head (The Boss) in childhood. The movie tracks between her days as a seemingly well-adjusted magazine writer as an adult and a dysfunctional, impoverished upbringing in West Virginia. Much of Jeannette’s character hinges on her parents, a fearsome alcoholic of a father (Woody Harrelson) and her flighty artist of a mother (Naomi Watts).
The film hops back and forth between these periods in Jeanette’s life, something that unfortunately doesn’t work because the approaches are so uneven. Adult Jeanette — as played by Larson — has little emotion and plays her role with a dead-eyed detachment that’s hard to feel invested in. The idea is to show how Jeanette’s partitioned all of her past away, but it makes for a performance with nothing to really latch onto.
Faring better are the flashbacks, though they present their own problems, mostly due to patriarch Rex Walls. He’s a terrifying, unwieldy alcoholic, and The Glass Castle doesn’t understand how to approach him. On one hand, the film does an admirable job attempting to show the effect alcoholism can have on a child, especially the conflict that fear and ingrained paternal admiration can play off one another. But the film is perhaps too kind to Rex. Watching the film, I could never buy into his charms, which is perhaps a failing on the part of the movie.
Not helping things, either, is the climax, which is far too tidy considering the dark places the film manages to go early on. Any semblance of complexity is wasted once the film finally ends, as Cretton and company make sure things are made nice and tidy. It’s all too pat, especially considering that this is the big emotional ending the film has seemingly been working toward for two hours. As a whole, all of these problems don’t make The Glass Castle unwatchable, just immensely forgettable. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking. Now playing at AMC Classic, Carolina Cinemark, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.