Review: The Glass Castle

Brie Larson and Shree Crooks in The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle gut punched me when I read it about 10 years ago. It’s now a film. As a film, it still conveys the emotional wreckage of a dysfunctional family upbringing in vivid ways.

The 2005 memoir by Jeannette Walls was adapted for the screen by director Destin Daniel Cretton and his co-writer Andrew Lanham. Brie Larson stars as Jeannette Walls.

Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts and the child actors in The Glass Castle
This is our school – right here on the bare ground.

The film tells the story of Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary Walls (Naomi Watts) and the unconventional way they raised their four children. As adults, the children were played by Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maureen, Brie Larson as Jeanette, Josh Caras as Brian, and Sarah Snook as Lori, the youngest. There were three actors for each of the siblings to show them at different ages.

Rex and Rose Mary lived as nomads. They had no address, no long lasting jobs. They might camp outside or squat in an abandoned house. Their children were not in school but they all learned to read. Their few gifts were books.

Rex was trained as an engineer. He was very smart and taught his children all kinds of interesting things. He was also full of an alcoholic’s grandiose schemes. One of those schemes was to build his family a glass castle in the mountains.

Rose Mary painted. All the time. She had paint and canvas everywhere. Somehow when they packed up to move with 15 minutes notice she managed to drag her canvasses with her.

There’s a cognitive dissonance between the neglect and lack of care the children suffer and the love and actual upbringing they receive. Their parents are eccentric but charming, inadequate but filling.

If there was no food, Rex took them outside and filled them with stories about the stars or the animals.

When Jeanette was in high school, the family stayed for a few years in their father’s old home town of Welch, WV. The children went to an actual school. They lived in a remote house with no heat or electricity, but at least they stayed in one place. That allowed Jeanette to learn journalism, get a job with the local paper, and arrange scholarships for college.

The story unfolds as adult Jeanette, who works as a writer in New York City, sees her parents on the street. Her father berates the driver of the cab she’s in and spots Jeanette in the back seat. Her mother digs through a dumpster nearby.

This sets off a chain of memories for Jeanette. Her current life is ordered and neat. With one quirk. She lives out of a suitcase. Her possessions are packed in boxes. She looks settled and calm on the outside, but she’s still ready to make a run for it.

Brie Larson, Josh Caras, and Sarah Snook in The Glass Castle
Jeanette talks to Lori and Brian about their parents being in NYC

Jeanette’s engaged to David (Max Greenfield), a successful businessman. After she sees her parents on the street, she calls her siblings together for a meeting. They decide to go see their parents in the building where they are squatting. David will go, too.

The grown siblings are all trying to live “normal” lives. Seeing their parents is not an easy choice.

Later, Rex and Rose Mary show up at Jeanette’s engagement party. It’s amazing the swath of destruction an alcoholic can create in a family’s life. Rex runs through the party like a giant mowing machine.

Jeanette cuts all ties with her parents. Not until her mother comes to her with the news that her father is dying does she talk to them again.

At the end of the film, photos of the real Walls family are shown. Rose Mary is shown with some of her art. We see the real Jeanette Walls. Jeanette has built a stable, successful life, thanks in part to the fact that her memoir The Glass Castle has been on the NY Times bestseller list for years. She’s written other books as well.

The film is powerful. On the one hand, I was horrified by how the parents of 4 children could so neglect their responsibilities. On the other hand, I  admired the Walls for sticking to their unconventional way of living. If Rex had been capable of controlling his drinking, their lives would have been different. But isn’t that true for every child with an alcoholic parent?

We see the Walls children as adults. We see them as survivors. If the story merely told about their childhood, it would have been unbearable. We see them together as adults. They realize in some ways they are lucky, despite all the scars they bear.

The performances, especially from Woody Harrelson, were excellent. Everyone down to the youngest actors gave wonderful performances. Even if you haven’t been touched by the book, I think you’ll find The Glass Castle interesting. Most books are a difficult challenge to translate onto the screen. This was an especially tricky story to navigate. So much had to be left out. The film isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good, considering the emotionally charged material it had to start with.

The Glass Castle is available on Amazon Video, Hulu, YouTube, and Google Play.

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