‘The Glass Castle’ (2017) | Movie Review

The tagline for The Glass Castle on the poster is “Find Beauty in the Struggle.” This is not a novel concept. It’s “turn lemons into lemonade,” “light at the end of the tunnel,” or just “make the best out of a bad situation.” We like to see stories of perseverance, where the underdog triumphs and sheds the shackles she or he has been bound by. Quite frankly, that’s the structure 99% of movies take on. However, rarely do protagonists not simply come to peace with the obstacles that hinder them but hold up those obstacles as things to be admired and adored. Such is the case with The Glass Castle, where our main character’s emotionally abusive, alcoholic father not only gets forgiven for how horrible he was but instead is seen as this great, charming, lovely man who had a few setbacks.

I don’t want to begrudge Jeannette Walls (here played by Brie Larson), upon whose memoir the film is based, for how she emotionally dealt with her father. Perhaps for her this felt like the best option to justify her terrible childhood. As an observer, though, all this reads to me is she is glorifying a monster, and she is in a deep state of denial. When we are shown during the end credits real film and photographs of her father as the family reminisces on all the good times and wacky antics he got up to, all I could do was squirm in my seat, needing to exasperatingly pull my collar to the side.

Jeannette (played as a child by Chandler Head and a preteen by Ella Anderson), along with her three siblings, grew up living a nomadic lifestyle, bouncing from town to town and dump to dump for brief periods of time. They usually have to leave because her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) would get himself into some kind of trouble, forcing everyone to hurriedly pack up and hit the road. He never held a steady job, and her mother Rose (Naomi Watts) was an artist who never sold anything. So, they grew up dirt pour, and any money they got would be funneled straight into a bottle of booze for Rex. At one point, the kids haven’t eaten in three days, and all they have is half a stick of butter and some sugar to mix together for a meal.

We see Larson as Jeannette in the late 1980s, where she is now a well-to-do New Yorker writing a gossip column for a paper and engaged to a financial analyst (Max Greenfield). As with anyone engaged to a stuffy financial guy in a movie, she is not satisfied with her life and comes to realizes she misses the free spirit nature of her youth. Sure, there was the poverty, no food, extreme emotional manipulation, scars down her torso from when she was set on fire, and memories of her mom being pushed out of a window, but those were the good ol’ days, and dad was really just being dad.

The reason I am harping on this issue so much is that the co-writer and director The Glass Castle is Destin Daniel Cretton, who just a few years ago brought us one of the best films about abused kids I have ever seen with Short Term 12, also starring Brie Larson. Every moment of that film felt honest to how people would react after being put through the ringer like those kids were, which makes sense as the film was inspired by Cretton’s own time working a facility that housed these kids. That is why I am so surprised by how phony and off-putting the character reactions feel in this.

It’s also disappointing that this is the material given to this cast. Larson, Harrelson, Watts, and company are more than capable of handling emotional complexity of the highest order. Harrelson, in particular, has shown he has no qualms about not being liked. In fact, that is how he plays the vast majority of his scenes, so when we are ultimately told we are supposed to like him, it gives you serious whiplash and leaves you slack-jawed.

There is a difference between forgiveness and hagiography, and The Glass Castle doesn’t just step over the line there. It clears it by a mile. Stories of forgiveness and triumph are deeply satisfying. Being able to wear your troubles as a badge of honor is liberating. Saying those troubles were not troubles but were awesome moments is a whole different thing entirely. Good for the real Jeannette Walls to be able to establish a life for herself despite her enormous setbacks, but The Glass Castle does not actually see the real reasons as to why she could accomplish that. Instead, it’s a deeply troubling watch.

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