The Glass Castle is based on the true story of author Jeannette Walls’ unusual upbringing. Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton, who is one of the most talented indie directors out there, was enlisted to adapt the best-selling 2005 memoir and it was no easy task. How do you take the most personal story someone has ever written and bring it to the big screen while still keeping all the integrity and heart? By working with someone you’ve worked with before, of course. Brie Larson and Cretton team up once again, but some of the magic of Short Term 12 is lost in The Glass Castle.
Larson plays Jeannette Walls, and even though this is her story, a large majority of the story is also about her father, Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson). Let’s not mince words – Rex is an alcoholic and a terrible caregiver. Along with her mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), Jeannette’s parents frequently leave their four children hungry and they often have to fend for themselves, eating butter with sugar to survive. Rex has this impossible dream that he’s going to build Jeannette a glass castle where their whole family can live and they’ll no longer have to live day-to-day and on the always on the run. But it’s a pipe dream. Jeannette realizes this, so she and her siblings come up with a plan to get all of them out of Welch, Virginia, no matter how long it takes.
All the Walls children had a tough time growing up; they spent the better part of their childhood acting more like grown-ups than their own parents. And it’s hard for Jeannette to let go of this resentment towards her parents even as she distances herself and becomes a successful journalist. Engaged to a financial analyst (Max Greenfield) and off living a new life in New York City, Jeannette always finds herself circling back to her dysfunctional family – it’s the only family she’s ever known.
The Glass Castle is a bittersweet story. And on paper and in print, the story comes has a lot more impact and heart – 289 pages worth of heart. But it doesn’t completely translate onto film and it’s not just because of a time limitation. Some of the magic of Walls’ writing just got lost in translation. The need to create tension and build towards an inevitable climax almost cheapens Walls’ memoir and we lose a lot of the emotional grit. It’s no doubt that this is an incredibly touching story, but it never quite hits home.
Shaky story aside, the cast is brilliant, fantastic, and for all intents and purposes, perfect for the film. Larson, Harrelson, and Watts act like they’ve never acted before. Even Ella Anderson and Chandler Head as young and younger Jeannette have heart-breaking, scene stealing moments. And you know Harrelson is giving it his all in this movie because only a truly great actor can play such bad person with such heart that you almost want to feel bad for his character. (I still don’t like Rex though.) But at the end of the day, a great cast can only do so much with so little. I wanted to love this film. I wanted to fall head-over-heels in love with it. But I was let down. Kind of like how Jeannette was let down by her parents time and time again.