One Christmas when he had no money for gifts, Rex Walls took each of his four children into the snow outside their West Virginia cabin and told them to pick a star in the night sky: Long after other kids' cheap toys would be broken and discarded, his children would have their stars. Important life lesson from an inspirational dad or just another con by an indigent drunk?
Director Destin Daniel Cretton has it both ways in his admirably unsentimental but frustratingly uneven screen adaptation of Jeannette Walls' bestselling memoir The Glass Castle, about the impoverished and itinerant childhood she experienced at the hands of her bohemian mother and alcoholic father.
How moviegoers view this experience, meanwhile, may depend on how seduced they are by Woody Harrelson's scene-stealing turn as Rex, the would-be inventor who promises Jeannette he will build the family a glass castle that will be heated by sunshine even as they are living in shacks without electricity or plumbing. Harrelson's erratic charmer dominates the film at the expense of the women around him and the story of the adult Jeannette, played with some confusion by Brie Larson, feels clichéd and disconnected from the more powerful scenes of the character's youth. Read the adult story as something of a postscript and the film becomes a moving examination of a child's relationship with a flawed parent, but demand that the adult story carry its own dramatic weight and you may find yourself utterly sick of Harrelson's troublesome Rex.
The fault in the film lies as much with Cretton's script, which he co-wrote with Andrew Lanham, as it does with his direction: To build toward a satisfying conclusion and a final confrontation between Jeannette and her father, the writers have invented a plot about her engagement to a wealthy New York investment banker (Max Greenfield), an uptight guy who is sympathetic to his fiancée's difficult background but wants her to stay away from her impossible family. Cretton then flips between the two time periods continually, admirably light-handed in the earlier passages but uncertain of his path in the later. Scenes where the adult Jeannette's past threatens to disrupt dinner with one of the fiancé's fancy clients, where she passes her homeless parents garbage-picking on the streets of Manhattan or where Rex gate-crashes her lavish engagement party, feel melodramatically contrived in contrast to the much truer emotions that run through the story of her childhood.
The metamorphosis of the bright and brave girl so effectively played by the young Ella Anderson into a New York gossip columnist seems improbable – although Walls was, in real life, a New York Magazine society writer before she penned her memoir. This artificiality is hardly Larson's fault as she reunites with Cretton after their success together in his 2013 independent film Short Term 12. Briefly, before 1980s New York takes hold, Larson is highly effective in her scenes as the teenage Jeannette still living in Virginia, carefully laying out the compromised emotional territory that Harrelson's character forces her to navigate. Cast once again as a traumatized victim, the star of Room finesses a scene where her character successfully resists the sexual advances of a man her father has just hustled at the pool table.
But once Jeannette is dolled up in her 1980s finery and placed in an improbably lavish New York apartment, her story begins to feel manufactured, and the actress, not just the character, often seems lost. Similarly, the script hasn't made enough room for Rose Mary, Jeannette's artistic mother, so that Naomi Watts is underused. After an intriguing opening where Rose Mary tells her hungry little daughter to cook herself lunch (with disastrous results) because she has to finish a painting, Watts skillfully builds up a sunny but feckless figure who undertakes life with Rex as a grand adventure. But when his alcoholism eventually brings them down and they settle permanently in the Appalachian holler from which he sprang, Watts isn't given enough space to examine the character's particular troubles nor why she stays with her husband. And, finally, the fate of Jeannette's three siblings – there are hints the youngest, who gets left behind as the others depart, is particularly traumatized – is never examined in much detail.
At the core of the film are beautiful scenes of a child gradually awakening to the heartbreaking truth about a parent with whom she shares a deep affinity. Moments when Harrelson and the little Chandler Head confront the creatures that might be prowling a desert campground, or when Harrelson and Anderson confront the real monster that is Rex's drinking, are hugely memorable. If only all of The Glass Castle were this good.