In 2013 indie darling Short Term 12 starring Brie Larson, put Maui-native filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton on the Hollywood map as the new major talent to watch. He's back behind the camera and reunited with his muse for the adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir, The Glass Castle. The story has all the ingredients for a compelling cinematic tale; the real-life story of a woman Jeannette Walls (Brie Larson) and her siblings, who are raised by dysfunctional (to say the least) parents in nomadic life style under extreme poverty.
Pater Familias Rex (a pitch perfect Woody Harrelson) is a hopeless alcoholic who bounces from job to job, unable and uninterested to keep one, whilst his wife Rosemary (Naomi Watts) is an eccentric and delusional artist who thinks she can cope with her husband’s shenanigans whilst focusing on her paintings. Living life on the road, in full anti-conformist and anarchist fashion may sound fun until the lack of responsibility catches up with you.
A rather angering if memorable scene where Jeannette as a child, three years old, is making her own dinner, her mother thinks “life is too short to waste time doing mundane things like cooking for your children” and as expected things go wrong as her tutu catches fire and she winds up with her torso permanently scarred by first degree burns and top it all off Rex doesn’t have medical insurance to cover the hospital costs. It is not like Rex and Rosemary are complete monsters; they undoubtedly love their children, but the problem is they are an extremely selfish and self-centered couple, unfit for parenting. As the years go by and the children grow into teenagers, problems become bigger but the music doesn’t change. We witness the teenagers starving and eating leftover butter mixed with sugar – all that’s left in the house whilst their father is out drinking. It becomes rather infuriating to witness the situation as the film progresses.
The script glosses over some of the most absurd things that these poor kids did to survive, toning down the bleakest aspects of Jeannette Walls’ memoir, understandably, but in doing so the film loses the raw authenticity of her real-life story. The other major issue is structure and execution. Similarly to the book the film begins with an adult Jeannette, now living in New York, on her way home one night in a cab and spots her parents rummaging through garbage. Embarrassed, she makes sure to avoid being noticed, just like she makes up tales of an ordinary life when she gets questioned about her family. She obviously feels bad about it though she can’t help it, and it’s clear from the start that accepting her path of self-made woman with a background of hardships is a major thematic thread.
As the film goes on, the story cuts back and forth between adult Jeannette in New York – getting engaged and trying to find a new balance with her parents – and her childhood/teens which progressively catches up with the present. The memoir on the other hand, after the prologue, remains on a straight narrative line. Cretton’s choice to alternate time periods, makes things more cinematically dynamic and aside from the usual tricks of the trade – trimming here and there, combining storylines and characters, moving things around – the film is overall in tune with how things unfold on the page.
What spoils Cretton’s otherwise solid narrative structure is the introduction of Jeannette’s fiancé David, played by New Girl’s Max Greenfield. His relationship with our protagonist is turned into a major plot point of the adult timeline, which is practically absent from the book, and becomes the film’s weakest link since his presence diminishes the impact of Jeannette’s arc as a strong and independent woman.
The Glass Castle is an intense emotional journey that will resonate with empathetic viewers but will probably alienate cynical ones. Although impeccably produced, on a thematic level the film comes across not fully accomplished, meandering between the protagonist's past and present trying to find the core of what it wants to say. Still worth seeing for its poignant exploration of parenthood and its peculiar father-daughter bond, the whole cast makes up for what’s lacking, especially Larson whose understated performance prevents the most dramatic moments from falling into melodrama, keeping the narrative grounded and Ella Anderson with her breakthrough performance as young Jeannette.
The Glass Castle is out in UK cinemas on October 6th.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia