Glass Castle, The (United States, 2017)

August 11, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Glass Castle, The Poster

The Glass Castle, based on the memoir of the same name by Jeannette Walls, comes across as an offbeat coming-of-age story whose integrity is impeded by the need for closure. Real life doesn’t work that way but movie-goers don’t like loose ends and unresolved issues. By laminating Walls’ story with a Hollywood sheen, the narrative climaxes in an artificial and contrived manner. The penultimate scene is so obviously scripted that its inclusion is damaging. That’s too bad, because there are some effective individual scenes earlier in the proceedings.

Putting aside the ending, The Glass Castle remains flawed. The story is presented through the tired, unnecessary method of using flashbacks to set up the “present” time and place. When appropriate, this approach can add depth and meaning to a movie but it’s superfluous in The Glass Castle. Why was it done this way? The cynic in me thinks maybe it was to get Oscar-winner Brie Larson on screen earlier. In a purely chronological representation of events, she wouldn’t have shown up until past the halfway point. This way, she has a presence throughout the entire film.

Does the movie soften the violent and abusive tendencies of Jeannette’s father, Max (brilliantly played by Woody Harrelson)? Probably. But reminiscences are like that. In addition to being unreliable when it comes to details, memory can round harsh edges and erase ugly scars. We gaze back through rose-colored glasses not objective lenses. Jeannette was obviously conflicted with respect to her father and that comes across in the film. But, perhaps because the movie doesn’t want us to hate Max, the moments of gentleness and fatherly camaraderie are emphasized and the menacing episodes are downplayed.

Moving beyond the opening scenes, which transpire in 1989 New York City and have Larson playing a successful adult Jeannette, the starting point for the narrative is about 25 years earlier. Jeanette (played by Chandler Head and later by Ella Anderson) and her siblings, Lori, Brian, and Maureen, spend their time traveling from town-to-town, staying one step ahead of the bill collectors. Max, unable to hold down a job because of his drinking, is always on the move and his wife, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), goes along with him. She is willing to endure all manner of indignities as long as, when they stop, there’s a place where she can set up her canvas and paints.