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edge staff writer


‘The Glass Castle’ half full

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True story-based drama a flawed, but compelling film

Telling true stories isn’t always easy for Hollywood. No matter how compelling a real-life narrative might be, it will almost inevitably require some degree of tweaking rendering it cinematically fit. And when that narrative also possesses a number of elements that a viewer will find familiar, well … it’s tricky.

“The Glass Castle” is one such problematic tale. Based on the 2005 Jeanette Wells memoir of the same name, the movie is tasked with telling a story whose truths are dark and complex and occasionally ugly while still maintaining a certain degree of empathetic engagement. It’s a fine line; director Destin Daniel Cretton does an admirable job steering the film tonally, with only a handful of moments that veer fully into the oncoming traffic of the melodramatic.

Jeanette Walls (Brie Larson, “Kong: Skull Island”) is a gossip columnist working for a New York City newspaper. She lives with her financial analyst fiancé David (Max Greenfield, TV’s “New Girl”) and generally lives the upwardly mobile lifestyle inherent to that particular time and place.

But on her cab ride home one night, she sees her homeless parents through the window, which forces her to once again dig into the complicated relationship she has with her family, remembering the transient and confusing nature of her upbringing.

Young Jeanette - played at different ages by Ella Anderson (TV’s “Henry Danger”) and Chandler Head (“The Boss”) – spent her childhood wandering from place to place, squatting in assorted abandoned spots as her nonconforming nomadic parents Rex (Woody Harrelson, “War for the Planet of the Apes”) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts, “The Book of Henry”) make their way hither and yon across the countryside. He’s a scattered drunk, but also a polymath of sorts. She’s swept up by the idea of creativity above all.

They are not good parents.

While Jeanette and her three siblings – two sisters and a brother - are largely enamored of her wild parents and their flights of fancy when they’re young. However, as the years go by it becomes ever clearer that their atypical lives aren’t as idyllic and idealistic as they’ve been made out to be. Dysfunction bubbles from every crack in the veneer – and there are a lot of cracks.

We watch as Jeanette grows up in this squalid chaos, in homes that may or may not have electricity or running water or heat. And we watch as the woman she grows up to become continues to struggle with the uneven and painful legacy of her childhood. Can she put aside the past and forgive her parents? And more to the point – should she?

There’s no denying the visceral impact of Jeanette Walls’ story. It’s a vivid portrait of familial dysfunction rendered all the more unsettling by the moments of celebration and joyfulness folded in amongst the many, many interpersonal issues. The Walls family had all manner of problems, but loving one another was not one of them.

The biggest obstacle “The Glass Castle” faces – at least, in this cinematic form – is the necessity of building empathy and/or sympathy not just for Jeanette and her siblings, but for Rex and Rose Mary as well. And it is there where the film struggles the most; the codependence and enabling and generally questionable actions brought forth by the pair (mostly Rex, but Rose Mary has her share of unfortunate moments) aren’t given enough time with regards to redemption, leaving the audience struggling to reconcile what they’ve seen with how they’re ultimately intended to feel.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s what Cretton – who also co-wrote the screenplay with Bangor native Andrew Lanham – chose to accentuate, this idea that every family has its own unique messiness with which to be dealt.

Many potential shortcomings are covered by the outstanding work of the ensemble cast. Larson is one of the most talented actresses currently working; she’s got a particular talent for bringing forth the idiosyncratic side of intimacy that works beautifully here. Harrelson is bombastic and self-assured and thoughtless as Rex, with a wealth of charisma that we sometimes forget he has to spare. Watts captures a sense of smiling sadness and codependence coated in bravado.

Sarah Snook (“The Dressmaker”), Josh Caras (“Pitching Tents”) and Bridgette Lundy-Paine (TV’s “Atypical”) are excellent as Jeanette’s siblings; despite limited time, each manages to bring forth a nuanced and unique perspective on the impact of their odd upbringing. And all the kids – Anderson, Head and the half-dozen youngsters who played Jeanette’s siblings in their younger years – are good, without any of the child actor mannerisms that can torpedo a cast’s effectiveness.

“The Glass Castle” accomplishes its primary aim – to give us a look at the life of a woman whose worldview is utterly and permanently skewed by the unusual decisions put forth by her parents. Where it falls short is in finding a way to render those decisions understandable – or at least forgivable.

Still, with great performances and a compelling story, one can certainly overlook the film’s flaws; this glass is definitely half full.

[4 out of 5]


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