Everyone can admit once that they wish their childhood wasn't spent in a brick-and-mortar school but instead, was learning on the road with their free-spirited parents. This movie adaptation of the 2005 memoir The Glass Castle by former gossip column Jeannette Walls, however, shows a harsh reality when those yearned for hippie parents are neglectful, ignorant and reckless, with their nomadic lifestyle consisting of squatting in derelict holes and going for days without food.
The film takes place when Jeanette (Brie Larson) is now an adult, living in the Big Apple, on the cusp of marriage to a humdrum financial analyst (Max Greenfield) and faced with the predicament of allowing her now estranged parents back into her new life. The plot switches back and forth in time to her upbringing with her and her 3 siblings, with the dynamic between her and her father Rex Walls (Woody Harrison) being at the crux of the story. Her father’s self-righteous indignation and alcohol abuse to cover up his failings to his family are put on full display, with him being the main culprit of her troubled childhood.
Credit is most certainly due to Ellia Anderson who portrays Jeanette Williams in her pre-teen years, enduring the worst of her dad’s episodes of neglect. Her depiction captures Jeanette’s conflicted desperation between her enduring love for her father despite his continuing acts of maltreatment. However, there’s not much else to praise here.
Perhaps the main issue is the lack of real discourse between father and daughter, instead delivering wave after wave of one-dimensional dysfunctional actions from Rex, of which, nearly all are unforgivable - make no mistake, his abuse and manipulation are never acts of parenting skills that could be interpreted of “tough love”, with Jeanette’s mum (Naomi Watts) nearly always being a bystander in the madness.
Dialogue is single layered, lacking any raw emotion, with the plot in both past and present playing out in such an inescapably obvious manner, not even sudden lashes of violence in certain scenes can muster much of a reaction due to its predicability. Occasionally, the film will throw a bone of hope for Rex, but these moments are stretched thin and fail to scupper any redemption for him. As flashbacks show Jeanette coming of age and doing whatever she can to escape her impoverished circumstances, her dubious love for her parents rightly wanes.
Imagine then, the towards the film having a sudden change of heart and masking the pain, the manipulation and the trauma, in a last-ditch attempt to convince that her dad wasn’t such a bad guy after all. No dice. We’ve seen far too much abuse to forgive and forget.
While the narrative is flawed, the cinematography is also letdown too. Scenes of open wilderness and desert that the family explores and make their home are lost opportunities. It's a shame too, as these moments could have encapsulated the adventure Rex continually promised to his children and thus garnered some likeability towards him.
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations”. As Jeannette sits reminiscing on tales of goodwill from her her dad, laughing over Thanksgiving turkey, it simply doesn’t add up. The lack of contextual love Rex showed for his daughter is glaring and his best efforts are too fragmented. Sure, the sudden appreciation Jeanette shows for her dad may leave one conflicted upon their view of Rex, though not for his problematic actions, moreover why the film’s sudden backpedalling to shoehorn tidbits of redemption should be taken seriously. Much like the glass castle itself that Rex continually promises to build for his family, it talks a good game but ultimately fails to deliver.