Hello, everyone! More than a year ago, I wrote a review of Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, which I praised for being a straight-forward recollection of Walls’ neglectful and border-line abusive childhood. While the film adaptation, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton of Short Term 12, is a lovingly made, often touching film, it doesn’t carry the same boldness of its source material. Neither work points fingers, but Cretton’s adaptation tries to find forgiveness in a story that doesn’t deserve it. In trying to force a sappy happy ending, Cretton turns a blunt, complex memoir into a boilerplate Hollywood sob story.
Synopsis: Jeannette Walls (Brie Larson) is used to being on the move: her nomadic parents Rosemary (Naomi Watts) and Rex (Woody Harrelson) have carted Jeannette and her three siblings across the United States since birth. Devoted to her charismatic father and his dreams of building a wondrous house called the Glass Castle, Jeannette enjoys her hippie lifestyle, ignoring her parent’s neglect and Rex’s drinking problem. It’s not until the down-on-their-luck family moves to Rex’s hometown of Welch, West Virginia that Jeannette realizes the extent of her parents’ neglect and decides to fend for herself. Determined to leave Welch, Jeannette must head toward an unknown future and leave her parent’s life behind.
My take: Since real life doesn’t necessarily have an arc, it can be difficult to translate memoirs into a movie, as a person’s life doesn’t always equal a satisfying story. Walls’ memoir didn’t end on an ambiguous note, but it didn’t end with one of finality either. She never offers excuses for what her parents did, nor does she try to forgive them. The film isn’t satisfied to leave it at that and from the beginning of the film, he spins a story of redemption, one that happens to revolve around Rex Walls. Aside from the first flashback where Jeannette burns herself cooking hot dogs under Rosemary’s supervision, all of Jeannette’s flashbacks focus on Rex’s problems.
In order to accomplish this, the film sidelines key parts of the book, like the Walls’ time in Phoenix, which was their only stable home, Jeannette’s encounters with a childhood friend who tried to assault her, and her experience being bullied in Welch. It also glosses over Rex’s more insidious problems, his periodic violence towards Rosemary, his hustling scheme that ended up with Jeannette being nearly raped, his selfishness and narcissism. Worse, the movie tries to pin all of these on Rex being abused as a child, which although terrible, is no excuse for the way he neglects his family. The film isn’t interested in the narrative of Rex Walls, a selfish drunk who sometimes happens to be a good dad, it’s interested only in the rosy memories of Rex Walls, a free-spirited hippie who gifted his children with an unorthodox wild-child adolescence.
I didn’t like Walls’ memoir because it was a redemption story about her father, I liked it because it was a story about her life, her dreams, and her strength in times of chaos. The move fails Jeannette by focusing on her father instead of her. It also simplifies the difficulties Walls faced as an adult by reducing her conflict into an age old cliché of being true to oneself. Every time adult Jeannette confronts her father about his neglect, he challenges her about her new life as a successful writer in New York, claiming that she’s living a false existence, while he and Rosemary are living a life of freedom. It would be one thing if the film left it at that, but it has to stoop to a scene of deathbed forgiveness where Jeannette and Rex reminisce about the good ol’ days (like the time he let her pet a cheetah at the zoo – how fun!) and she basically agrees with him that she should live more like him.
It’s almost insulting. What’s wrong with living in New York with a nice apartment, a nice job, and a nice fiancée? Most would say that’s an ideal existence, but Cretton has to force the film to fit his arc, one based on accepting one’s roots and fatherly forgiveness, even if that father is a jerk who deserves Jeannette’s silence. The heroine should not be shoved aside in her own movie. The Glass Castle is supposed to be Jeannette’s story, not Rex’s, and it’s definitely not supposed to be a glorification and forgiveness of the latter.
That said, there is a lot to enjoy in this film. Foremost is the acting. The cast is stellar, even the teen and child actors, who uncannily embody their older counterparts. Harrelson gives an unsurprisingly nuanced performance, as does Brie Larson, who in one scene morphs from a sophisticated, restrained socialite to a wild mountain girl in half a second. The only less than great performance is from Naomi Watts, but that could be because Rosemary’s character is underwritten and doesn’t give her the space to play as important a role in Jeannette’s life as Rex.
The visuals of the film are uniformly pretty and costumes especially caught my eye. It’s not often that a movie based in the 80s is subtle, but The Glass Castle maintains the period decor and clothing so effortlessly that it makes the viewer forget that they’re watching a bygone era. I’m just glad they didn’t dress Walls like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl.
Final Consensus: The Glass Castle does a disservice to the book by putting its main antagonist front and center, and making a story of acceptance into one of redemption. Although its reinterpretation of the original memoir is lacking, fantastic performances and a strong visual eye make the film worth watching, even if it’s with a skeptical eye.