By: Christian Harding: (Three Beers) –
Well, I think we now know why this one didn’t get a more Oscar-friendly release date…
Adapted from the 2005 best selling memoir of the same name, The Glass Castle is based on the real life experiences of author and protagonist Jeannette Walls, who spent the entirety of her childhood and adolescence constantly moving in and out between many different homes, all the while living in extreme poverty with her parents and growing number of siblings. This film also reunites the actress/director team of Brie Larson and Destin Daniel Cretton, who were both behind the criminally overlooked Short Term 12 from 2013. Unfortunately, those hoping this project would recapture the magic of their previous collaboration will likely be disappointed here, as The Glass Castle is, despite a number of solid performances and some moving individual scenes, one of the most tonally conflicted and manipulative dramas this reviewer has seen in quite some time.
“So we both agree that my King Kong film was way better, right?”
Above all else, the greatest strength of The Glass Castle is its assembled cast, though even this comes with a few caveats. Seasoned professionals like Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts aren’t doing anything we haven’t seen from them before, but they both fit their roles well enough. This also marks the whopping third(!) film this year that completely wastes the acting talents of Brie Larson, who (despite having the leading role) isn’t really given all that much to do other than look stern and ashamed of her family, until the final twenty minutes finally call upon her to flex her Oscar winning acting chops. The only actor in this that’s really given consistently good, juicy material to work with is Ella Anderson as the teenage version of Jeannette, who really is quite good in this and does a lot of the heavy dramatic lifting. Both the actresses playing Jeannette, as well as Woody Harrelson, have the largest roles in the film and even when the writing is at its most hokey and mawkish, all the actors in this do a commendable job and try their best to elevate some otherwise very troubling material.
*Disclaimer: any words of negativity directed towards the parents of the Walls family in the upcoming sections is directed towards their portrayal in the film adaptation of The Glass Castle, and isn’t directed towards the real life figures, or how they were portrayed in the memoir*
There’s no doubt in my mind that the most significant and crippling flaw in The Glass Castle is its extremely confused, misguided tone. Throughout the course of the film, we’re shown all manner of poor decision making and irresponsible behaviors regarding the Walls parents’ treatment of their children, all of which ranges from slightly troubling at best to borderline abusive at worst – and most of it is shown in an flattering, tone deaf manner that’s way too unfitting given the gravity of the situation. For example, the film at times makes a point to focus on moments where all the kids are starving and forced to make a meal out of water, a stick of butter, and sugar – and another early instance involves the family busting a severely injured young Jeannette out of the hospital because they wouldn’t be able to pay for the bills.
These repeated instances of poor decision making are I guess meant to be cheered on by the audience, meaning to show a blue collar, working class family sticking it to the system that’s supposedly keeping them down; but the way the film is trying to make the audience feel is in such conflict with what’s actually being shown that the end result is beyond jarring; and it’s all accompanied by one of the most overbearing, manipulative musical scores these ears have heard in quite a while. We spend the entirety of The Glass Castle dwelling on the poor, irresponsible behavior of the parents and apart from being expected to find them quirky and charming all along the way, there’s even a completely forced final reconciliation between Jeannette and her parents which is supposed to redeem them somehow, but doesn’t feel earned one bit, and the attempt to make these monsters seem at all likable or sympathetic isn’t at all appreciated to say the least.
Despite being not only based on a true story but also written by a member of the family that the film is centered on, The Glass Castle has a surprisingly large number of underdeveloped supporting players herein. Again, it comes across as especially odd considering the angle this story comes from. Perhaps this approach as seen through the film adaptation was meant to put more focus on the father/daughter relationship at the center of the proceedings, but everyone else in the story feels like such an afterthought that it can’t help but draw attention to itself.
As I mentioned beforehand, the performances across the board are solid, but once again it’s the writing and the way this story was adapted to the screen that hinders and downsizes the roles of many of Jeannette’s brothers, sisters, friends, etc. These people might have, and most likely did play a pivotal role in the rather unconventional upbringing of this family, but based on the way The Glass Castle handles it all in film form, you’d swear that the father and just one of his children were the only people that had any major impact in how everyone in the family was functioning during the period of time the story chooses to focus on.
Yeah, don’t expect to be getting all choked up here during these final moments.
While no doubt being well intended, as well as nicely acted on all fronts, The Glass Castle is still one of the most tonally misguided major releases of the year. A truly great film could’ve been made from this source material, had it been approached with a darker, more objective sensibility attached. But director Destin Daniel Cretton, despite showing noticeably improved visual and stylistic confidence since his last feature, turns the majority of the proceedings here into a hokey nostalgia trip that asks the audience to be enchanted by constant child endangerment and starvation, among many other things. Life living under those conditions may never have been boring, but it was often stressful and needlessly dangerous, and seeing it portrayed onscreen with such fondness and reverence gets tiresome very quick.
The Glass Castle (2017) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: each time Brie Larson is noticeably embarrassed or annoyed by her parents.
Do another Shot: for each moment Woody Harrelson dials it up to eleven.
Just a Sip: for every flashback or time jump.
Shotgun a Beer: whenever you notice that Naomi Watts probably hasn’t showered for a couple of days.