If people leave The Glass Castle describing the Walls family as eccentric, this film will have done tremendous harm. There are times when it doesn’t seem like “eccentric” is the vibe writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton is going for with his adaptation of Jeannette Walls’s bestselling 2005 memoir, but that’s unmistakably the note the film ends on, and one it sprinkles throughout. For every slide into the darkness of this material, there’s another easy, grandmother-friendly metaphor waiting to soften the blow.
As a mechanism for melodrama, excusing a paternal figure’s abusive tendencies with “poor but happy” tropes is merely dull and overused. But as a means of justifying how the in-movie Walls comes to forgive her parents for putting her family through hell, it’s nauseating. And when it comes to how we should expect works of art to handle stories of child molestation, it’s downright immoral.
Readers of Walls’ book will know that her father, Rex, ruled the family with a mix of anti-establishment hippiedom, manipulation, and outright abuse. Often using his politics as a mask for his cruelty, Rex drank heavily, rarely held down a job, and criss-crossed the country with his wife and four kids, squatting where it suited him. He had fits of passion and creativity (the title refers to Rex’s unfulfilled plans to build a majestic all-glass family home) that could easily morph into physical rage and selfishness. Meanwhile, Jeannette’s mom, Rose Mary, neglected her children to focus on her art, and together the pair squandered every dollar they could find, frequently sending the kids to bed hungry in the process. As Jeannette and her siblings aged, they hatched plans to flee the disgusting West Virginia home they wound up settling in. One by one, they bolted for New York — so their parents followed them there, living on the street and continuing to haunt them into adulthood.
The fact that Walls’s parents weren’t total monsters, that they imparted a kind of open-air joy and limitless imagination in their offspring even while sometimes literally stealing from them, only further demonstrates how important it is for any film adaptation of the memoir to find the right shades of complexity for these characters. But just as Rose Mary can never paint Rex’s visage just right, neither can Cretton or his co-writer Andrew Lanham. Whatever nuance survives is largely the work of Woody Harrelson, who can instill both fear and a kind of pity just by glaring at his adversaries/relatives in the right, disheveled way. He has a great scene with the young Jeannette (Ella Anderson) where he “teaches” her to swim by throwing her, over and over again, into the deep end of the public pool. Naomi Watts, too, does strong work, letting Mary Rose’s flightiness dictate her feelings: we can see how someone like her could allow herself to be so easily manipulated, and even enjoy living at her husband’s mercy. Yet they’re both stuck in a mechanism that insists on waving off Rex’s more terrifying qualities with groaner lines about “the demons I’m chasing” being inside him all along.