There were two available avenues down which The Glass Castle, Destin Daniel Cretton’s adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ likewise-titled memoir, could have traveled. On the one hand, a ‘glass castle’ is symbolically suggestive of fragility, insecurity and hollow grandeur; on the other, it is a image that conjures nostalgic ideas of the fairytale ‘far, far away’s of childhood tales. In hindsight, it is a shame that Cretton leant to the latter. His Glass Castle is a film of many isolated successes, which are sadly let down a misjudged and inconsistent tone.
Brie Larson is the headline name on the poster, as journalist Jeannette Walls, but her presence in the film is best related to the role of Amy Adams in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals as a frame for more dominant portions of the film. Whereas Adams framed a dark, metaphorical thriller, Larson bookends flashbacks to the true life story of a young Walls, resemblant of a near spiritual sequel to Captain Fantastic. As in the Matt Ross film, here is a sorry-not-sorry presentation of one more anarchic upbringing.
Born in 1960, the second daughter of Rex and Rose Mary Walls, the young Jeanette was subject to a nomadic childhood, somewhere on the border of adventure and neglect – often both. Woody Harrelson plays Rex, an alcoholic ‘free spirit’ who teaches his daughter to swim by launching her into a public swimming pool to fend for herself (‘I can’t let you cling to the side all your life’), with Naomi Watts as Mary, an artiste mother of dubious priorities. ‘Would you rather I make you some food that’ll last for an hour or finish this painting that’ll last forever’ she tells her six-year-old daughter, who goes on to suffer permanent scarring after subsequently setting her dress alight whilst cooking.
As the family are forced to relocate over and over, by virtue of their father’s refusal to pay medical bills and taxes, they live off the dream of a future in which they will build, and live in, a utopian ‘glass castle’. Simultaneously, they exist in fear of Rex’s bipolaric tendencies to aggression and despair. Cut to 1989 and Jeanette has become everything her father fought against, a materialist in the capitalist system, whilst he himself continues to lash out and rail against society.
The problems of The Glass Castle primarily rest on the approach in which it has been realised. Rex’s alcohol-enhanced abuse of his family is interlinked so frequently with reminders that he’s a misguided soul with a good heart – all set in a haze of schmaltzy golden hues and to a country-twanging soundtrack – that the stance of the film comes across as deeply confused. One scene may display his heinous cruelty whilst the next will promise that he was a good Dad really. As such, the film is left uncomfortably comparable to the apologies of a victim in denial. Hints that Rex had his own demons and tragic past are too fleeting to engage and leave little by way of substance.
Good performances do make small headway in bringing the film back, however, with neat turns from Ella Anderson (as the young Jeanette), Harrelson and Watts. As for Larson, it is a true testament to her undeniable talents that the actress manages to deliver. Though, for the most part, the elder Jeanette is barely in the film – leaving Larson unable to develop into the character – when her moment does come, it’s very much welcome. Such a moving conclusion does little more than underline the whole as something of a missed opportunity.
The Glass Castle is not a bad film, per se; it is just one so unfortunately lightweight that it has little chance of bearing the load which it attempts to carry.