Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton brings the sure touch in dealing with material about troubled youngsters that he demonstrated in the gritty “Short Term 12” to a far glossier project in this adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir about growing up with adventurous but neglectful, even abusive, parents. “The Glass Castle” features a starry cast—Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts and Brie Larson—and they’re generally very good; but Cretton is especially successful in drawing strong performances from the young actresses, Chandler Head and Ella Anderson, who play Walls in childhood and adolescence, and he gets strong performances from the youngsters who play her siblings in the flashback sequences as well.
The success of Walls’ book means that there’s a built-in audience for Cretton’s film, and most of her readers should be more than satisfied with it. But others should find it agreeable as well. The deciding factor will be one’s willingness to embrace an old-fashioned family drama of a sort that Hollywood studios used to turn out regularly, but are now deemed rather passé—one that, given the material, might have been a good deal edgier than it turns out to be.
The film has a then-and-now construction, with the “now” focusing on Walls (Larson), in full Ross Hunter-Lana Turner mode as a successful NYC magazine writer—a gossip columnist, really—in the early nineties. Beautiful and cultured, she’s engaged to David (Max Greenfield), an investment banker with whose clients she hobnobs at swank restaurants and upscale parties. But while appearing to be at home among the upper-crust, she’s hiding the secret of her upbringing, which is revealed in periodic flashbacks as she and David deal with her family, particularly her voluble, alcoholic father Rex (Harrelson) and sharp-tongued mother Rose Mary (Watts), who are living as squatters in a dilapidated building on the seedy side of town, scrounging for food from dumpsters.
Rex and Rose Mary’s disdain for the choices Jeannette has made, including David, are a constant cause of friction, which forces her to come to terms, once and for all, with her feelings toward her parents. That leads to a stream of reminiscences, a jumble of good times and bad, of fleeting happiness and more pervasive misery.
The focus is on charismatic but unpredictable Rex: when sober he could be a wondrous dreamer, giving stars in the night sky to his children as presents or making elaborate blueprints for the glass house he promised would be their utopian home. But he could shift on a dime, especially when drinking, stealing his kids’ savings and shoving them around. His idea of teaching Jeannette how to swim simply involved tossing her into the deep water of the local pool, which led to a scuffle with the lifeguard that forced them to leave another house and move on before the law found them. Yet even then his complaints about segregation at the pool showed that there was an underlying point of principle to his apparent madness. Still, can one forgive under any circumstances the time that he effectively pimped out Jeannette to a guy in a bar he was trying to hustle at pool, simply because he was peeved to find out she wanted to leave home?
Rose Mary was less volatile but no better a caretaker. Early on she’s shown telling little Jeannette to see to her own lunch because she’s busy on one of her innumerable paintings, and an accident with the stove left the girl with a bad burn—and a permanent scar. On another occasion, the only food in the house for the children is butter and sugar. Of course, the fact that Rex is likely to spend the little money they have on booze doesn’t leave much for the grocery list.
The culmination of the family’s travels in the early flashbacks—which involve regular run-ins with doctors and social workers—is the decision to return to the Walls hometown in West Virginia, where the children first meet their father’s sad-sack father (A.J. Henderson), his brutish brother (Joe Pingue), and—most importantly—his severe, callous mother Erma (Robin Bartlett), who proves especially hard on Jeannette’s younger brother Brian—but also interested in him in a distinctly unsavory way. An episode in which Rex and Rose Mary leave the kids in her supposed care will force a move to their own place further up the mountain—where things alternately improve and deteriorate, in the usual Walls fashion, until the kids escape, one by one, although, as they learn, escape is really illusory.
Harrelson and Watts work hard to capture the spirits of Rex and Rose Mary, and though one occasionally gets the feeling that they might be trying a bit too hard, their extrovert performances are excellent. Larson, on the other hand, has the more difficult task not only of conveying a conflicted personality, but of doing so in collaboration with others playing the character’s younger selves, and it must be admitted that the various elements don’t quite mesh. It’s no help that she spends much of her “glamorous” New York footage playing against Greenfield, whose David (an invented figure, it seems) is rather like a caricature. But even her scene with Dominic Bogart, as the seedy fellow at the bar who wants more of Jeannette than she’s willing to give, doesn’t quite come off.
On the other hand, Head and Anderson are extraordinary as Jeannette’s younger selves, and Barrett makes Erma precisely the sort of fearsomely hard-boiled woman her dismal life might have forged And while Sarah Snook, Josh Caras and Brigette Lundy-Paine are only okay as Jeannette’s grown siblings, once again the younger versions are remarkable—Sadie Sink and Olivia Kate Rice (as Lori), Iain Armitage and Charlie Shotwell (as Brian) and Eden Grace Redfield and Shree Crooks (as Maureen) are all exceptional.
“Castle” boasts an excellent production design by Sharon Seymour, who shows sensitivity to the differing timeframes without undue exaggeration, equally appropriate costumes by Mirren Gordon-Crozier and Joy Hanae Cretton, and fine widescreen cinematography by Brett Pawlak, whose appreciation of the West Virginia locations is especially evident. Editor Nat Sanders deserves credit for splicing that glides smoothly through the back-and-forth chronology.
There will undoubtedly be some who take issue with the liberties Cretton’s film takes with Walls’ book—the omissions, the truncations, and—it must be added—the inventions. But while one might wish it possessed more of the grit of “Short Term 12,” the film mostly works as a more traditional kind of family melodrama—Cretton by way of Douglas Sirk.