Even if you know nothing about Destin Daniel Crettin’s latest film, you will be familiar with its type: based on a true story, beautifully photographed, aimed at audiences over the age of 40, and featuring award-worthy performances (in this instance from Woody Harrelson.) Such movies are released by the dozen every year, and “The Glass Castle” in particular brings to mind other low-key ‘true story’ films of 2017 such as “Lion and Loving.” While these movies were, respectively, affecting tales of reconnecting with one’s family and overcoming racial prejudices, they were, ultimately, rather forgettable, and the same could be said for “The Glass Castle.” Nevertheless, despite clumsy fluctuations of tone—the film is at once stark in its depiction of domestic abuse and sincere in its treatment of redemption and love—Crettin’s movie never loses sight of the intriguing, albeit familiar and flawed story it has to tell.
In New York City in 1989, gossip columnist Jeanette Walls (Brie Larson) and her financial advisor fiancée David (Max Greenfield) close a lucrative deal over dinner with associates. On the way home, Jeanette sees her homeless parents rummaging through bins on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. This triggers memories of Jeanette’s turbulent upbringing, and thus begins a brief history of the Walls family, while interrupting it are present-day examples of why their family is still a mess.
The extended flashbacks, for the most part, are to show the extent of Mr and Mrs Walls’s terrible parenting. Too busy painting to make lunch for her daughter, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) near the beginning of the movie tells a young Jeanette to cook hot dogs for herself, and consequently Jeannette suffers second-degree burns when her dress catches fire. Similarly, Rex (Woody Harrelson) would rather spend all his money on alcohol and cigarettes instead of providing food for his family, and at one point, since they haven’t eaten in three days, the children have no option but to eat butter and sugar. Rex and Rose Mary, for their negligence, are hated by their children, and yet Rex, thanks to his conviction in his delusional plans, convinces them that the future will indeed be a better one; as a result, he secures their love during the interstices of their childhood.
As childhood progresses into adolescence, however, the Walls children become increasingly critical of their parents’ way of living. While Rex insists they are ‘free,’ they’ve lived enough to know at this point that ‘free’ is just a euphemism for ‘poor.’ And once Jeanette’s older sister Lori runs away from the hills of West Virginia towards the bustle of NYC, their nuclear family begins to disintegrate. Just as the children desire to escape, Rex wishes to keep them grounded in West Virginia. It is a tale of equal frustration.
Does their come a point when children stop loving their parents? This is one central concern of “The Glass Castle,” and an unambiguous answer to this question only comes in the film’s final moments. Cynics will find plenty to hate in this movie; they won’t believe that parents so cruel as the Walls ought to be loved or forgiven by their children. Idealists, on the other hand, will no sooner accept the (relatively) happy ending than forget about it. Yet personalities halfway between these two poles will notice what makes the film interesting: that even in the direst of circumstances, children will almost always have a certain amount of love for their parents. It is this theme that propels the central conflict of “The Glass Castle,” and whether or not the moral of ‘Love thy parent’ is convincingly presented over the course of the narrative, it still makes for some compelling scenes and, overall, a decent movie.
“The Glass Castle” will be shown in the QFT until 19 October.
Director: Destin Daniel Crettin.
Starring: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Max Greenfield, Sarah Snook.