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.
How could this crumbling shack of mixed messages have come to us from the director-star pairing that made Short Term 12, this decade’s great film about recovering from abusive childhoods? Brie Larson was note-perfect there, as the leader of a youth recovery center who turns her trauma into a guiding light for others. Here, as the adult Jeannette, a New York gossip columnist who never picks up a pen, Larson can do little but look exasperated at her father’s zany antics. Decked out in fashionable gowns and jewelry, with New Girl‘s Max Greenfield on her arm as her smarmy accountant fiancée, Jeannette is little more than a prop, a visual antithesis to her parents’ reject-the-system lifestyle. She’s also clearly unhappy with her material world, and in a position to learn some down-home country morals, although it’s not like the parents’ lessons ever gave her much happiness. The flashbacks come in a clumsy rush, recounting everything from how Jeannette came to have burn scars on her chest to her father’s habit of “gifting” his children stars for Christmas in lieu of presents. Yet we gain no understanding of how Jeannette went from there to here, and we know her even less after she unleashes a climactic defense of her father to some dinner-date nobodies.
And we haven’t even gotten to the truly awful stuff yet. The film dramatically reduces the specter of molestation from the book, yet leaves enough in to matter: when the parents drop the kids off with Rex’s mother for a weekend, she tries to touch Jeannette’s younger brother Brian. We get strong hints that she did the same to Rex when he was a boy. Where does that leave our understanding of these characters, then, when they continue to love and forgive Rex into adulthood even though he knowingly put his children in the care of a child molester? Why, after the grandmother dies, does Cretton never cut to Brian at the funeral, as though his reaction to the situation doesn’t matter? Why does Brian, as a meek adult played by Josh Caras, merely toast his father with, “He had his moments”?
Remember, Spike Lee was pilloried for this same crime in Red Hook Summer, a film that is sloppier than The Glass Castle yet at least doesn’t try to hand-hold us through its own ugliness. Lee knew child molestation was wrong, and his film’s “forgiveness” of the preacher who commits the deed could be read as a broader statement on our society’s tendency to look the other way when institutions are involved in its cover-up. You can’t even pretend something similar is going on here: Cretton’s film ends with an unabashed celebration of the Walls’ quirky, nontraditional childhoods, and all but drops the abuse story in the third act. The guilty institution in this case is not the church but the movie industry, desperate for the feels of a dark-n-juicy memoir but scared of the baggage of real humanity.
In this respect, the flashback structure is an ill-conceived, inauthentic gambit. The film is able to hurry along Jeannette’s personal journey simply by having her remember something about her father she would have already internalized when deciding how to deal with him in the present. When issues of money come up, they’re tossed aside as another quirk of these people; in real life, family money is gasoline on the fire of family abuse, not just another piece of kindling. They are the true, intertwined demons we need to see a hero like Jeannette chase, instead of the ones in her father’s deathbed confessional.
Do we have to sanitize these kinds of things just because the book was so popular? Who does that help, apart from some nebulous studio directive to please the middle-est of the middlebrow? When Rex convinces his kids to dig a giant ditch in their backyard as a foundation for their castle, and then the ditch is forgotten about and filled with garbage, the trash looks… clean. Too clean.