Brie Larson. Naomi Watts. Woody Harrelson. On paper The Glass Castle has all the ingredients to be an exceptional drama. Larson has gone from strength to strength over the last few years while Watts and Harrelson always bring their A game. So going into this adaptation of Jeannette Walls’s 2005 memoir I had high hopes. The story itself is one of triumph and tragedy; a real human life story that many can relate to in one way or another. Jeannette is another great character for Larson to sink her teeth into. Much like the balance of vulnerability and resilience that Larson displayed in Room as Joy, here The Glass Castle offers another strong independent female dealing with her own issues and outside influences. This time it’s a little closer to home as Jeannette struggles with her parents Rex (Harrelson) and Rose (Watts), two free spirits who are very much driven by their own desires and worldly beliefs.
We’re first introduced to Jeannette as an adult, trying to make something of herself in the big bad world alongside David (New Girl’s Max Greenfield). They’re the odd couple, clearly from completely different backgrounds, and yet somehow it works. Mostly. As much as Jeannette seems to want to escape her past and distance herself from the problems it always comes back to haunt her. Moments like seeing her parents dig through trash bring her right back down to Earth with a bump, constantly reminding her that no matter what she does to make her life better they’ll always be there in the background. It’s a tough situation to be in as she clearly doesn’t want to cut them off but they’re also holding her back in many ways.
Much of The Glass Castle is spent in flashbacks allowing us to spend more time with Rex and Rose and learning about the paths they’ve taken to get to such a dark place in the world. They’re both highly unconventional, teaching their kids in their own way about nature and not letting them believe in the system or the norm. To a point this is fun and a great escape from reality, and perhaps to an extent something we’ve all dreamt about, but the cold hard truth is that such attitudes from Rex and Rose are because they struggle to settle down and commit. Rex especially has his personal issues, not really knowing how to look after himself let alone be a true father. Harrelson is the perfect choice to play that unbalanced line between a loveable rogue and a downright drunk.
While Larson is great as the still struggling adult, it’s down to Ella Anderson as the younger Jeannette to take the brunt of Rex’s struggles in the flashbacks and she does a great job of illustrating how confusing it must be at that age to idolise someone yet all they do is let you down. It’s the core that drives The Glass Castle and the part that packs the most emotional punch understandably. You can’t help but want better for Jeannette and for Rex to get his stuff together and come through for her but he never does, and that’s the most depressing thing about The Glass Castle. How close all of this is to reality is up for debate and that’s always the most challenging part about developing a story like this. Sometimes it just doesn’t make for a good script or film, or at least needs changing up a bit. Ideas here like abusive parents and alcoholism have been delved into in stronger and more effective ways elsewhere.
So while you spend time wishing Rose would do something more, or that Rex would have a genuine heartfelt moment where he gets back on track, it never really happens. You can’t help but feel like all involved deserve better. Larson and director Destin Daniel Cretton previously worked together on Short Term 12, a movie that not only made people take notice of Brie but had a genuine charm and emotion about it, something sorely missing here. One of their collaborations stays with you after and really gets you thinking and sadly it’s not this one. I’d rather go and watch Greenfield as Schmidt in New Girl repeats while I wait impatiently for Larson’s Captain Marvel. Hopefully Marvel can deliver a movie worthy of her talents, something The Glass Castle fails to do for most involved.
Dir: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Max Greenfield, Naomi Watts, Sarah Snook, Ella Anderson
Music: Joel P. West
Run Time: 127 minutes
The Glass Castle is out now in cinemas.