The Glass Castle and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Based… on a True Story. Ugh… is there any other phrase in the English language (other than Starring Jai Courtney) that sends a bigger chill down my spine? Trying to parse out which decisions a film makes that are due to the source material is not an easy task (especially when you don’t KNOW the true story to begin with) and it makes judging a movie with a well-rounded opinion THAT much harder to pull off since it works on different levels. Sure, ANY adaptation is gonna have some changes when going from one medium to another, but adapting something that ACTUALLY happened by its very nature practically begs to be judged on merits that are different from any other movie. So does this family drama manage to be enjoyable in its own right, or am I gonna have to read the book and do a whole bunch of research after the fact to TRULY understand what it’s going for? Let’s find out!!
The movie is an adaptation of Jeannette Wall’s memoir of the same name and we follow her as an adult (Brie Larson) as well as a child (Ella Anderson and Chandler Head); discovering how the latter is informing the former and learning about the pleasant as well as not so pleasant aspects of growing up with an abusive alcoholic father Rex (Woody Harrelson) with big ideas but too many personal demons to follow through on any of them. Along for the ride are her siblings Lori, Brian, and Bridgette (Sarah Snook, Olivia Kate Rice, Sadie Sink, Josh Caras, Iain Armitage, Charlie Stowell, Bridgette Lundy-Paine, Eden Grace Redfield, and Shree Crooks) as well as their mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) who all deal with their father in their own ways; though none of them come out of their life with him unscathed. Still, they all turned out well enough I guess, especially Jeannette who’s working for a big New York magazine and is engaged to a super-rich guy! Everything’s going great, right!? Well… maybe not, especially when Mom and Dad show up in New York and start squatting in an abandoned building. Will Jeannette be able to make peace with the way her father behaved when she was growing up? What exactly are her parents even doing in New York in the first place? Is Woody Harrelson able to NOT be likable, even when playing a total jerk!? Heck, he managed to stay at least SOMEWHAT charming in Natural Born Killers!
Eh… I don’t know about this one. It’s well acted enough and there are moments of genuine human drama that tug at the heartstrings, but this film just feels rotten at the core; or at the very least, deeply misguided. Heck, while it’s not on the same level as a Pure Flix movie (what IS on that level?), it certainly feels like its playing in the same ballpark with its overly manipulative film making and decades old moralizing that just doesn’t feel relevant or even that genuinely useful in the modern age. I’m SURELY not the target audience for something like this which is why I want to temper my disdain for huge swathes of this movie (that and the whole BASED ON A TRUE STORY throws a wrench into things), but good performances and the occasional spark of genius can’t overcome just how toxic and wrongheaded this movie ultimately comes across as; feeling as out of place now as a Leave it to Beaver episode or even the last few seasons of South Park.
Alright, so what the hell am I even talking about when I describe this movie as toxic? The movie is ESSENTIALLY about surviving in an abusive home while also acknowledging the gray areas and the moments of happiness that can still exist in that kind of place. Fair enough! You can’t always nail a person down just by looking at their worst qualities or even their best ones! The problem is though… I don’t think the movie (or the writer for that matter) was as neutral as it’s telling its audience it is, because despite the main abuser (the father and to a certain extent the mother who is a victim of his abuse but also protects him) having plenty of opportunities to show what kind of bastard he can truly be, the movie never frames him in as dark of a light as his actions would suggest and even lionize him and his actions at several points in the movie. The film is incredibly manipulative on this level in how much it tries to push you just a bit further towards rooting for this guy (or sympathizing with him) than towards hating his guts for the terrible things he does. Let’s look at it another way. The movie is essentially split into two settings; the past with Jeanette’s childhood and the present (which is actually the eighties) in New York City with her fiancée. Both reflect different stages in her life and have a different man to which she forms a very close attachment, but pay attention to HOW these two settings are shot. Whenever Woody Harrelson isn’t being TOO wicked, the scenes are full of life and color. He’s given long speeches full of folksy wisdom to impart on his children while a beautiful orchestral score infuses his words with authority. Then we cut to modern day and everything is drab. The colors are COMPLETELY washed out (it’s almost black and white) and Jeannette’s fiancée is barely given any dialogue. One character (the abusive father) is given range and depth of character while the other (the fiancée) is barely a presence at all, and sure he’s a bit of a shmuck, but he’s not the one who’s a walking talking checklist of abusive behavioral patterns!
The movie is CONSTANTLY giving you reasons to forgive his character by juxtaposing his abusive tendencies with acts of kindness and mercy which in and of itself is a tactic of a lot of abusive people; trying to convince everyone that the good times in some way make up for the times when they are a monster. Sure he doesn’t have a job and takes his daughter out of a hospital while she’s being treated for easily burns (easily preventable burns by the way), but doctors make money so OBVIOUSLY what he’s doing is justified! The movie barely objects to ANY of this; neatly separating these supposed GOOD qualities from his bad ones as if they aren’t all part of one big pattern of abuse that’s allowed to go on for DECADES that the movie then just brushes away with tired old tropes about “blood is thicker than water” and maudlin histrionics about the importance of family. See, this is why something like The Fast and The Furious films, which for all its cheesiness are a REJECTION of such simplistic definitions of family, has connected so well with modern audiences. You don’t ACTUALLY owe anything to parents who don’t love and respect you. Just ask the countless LGBTQ+ homeless teens who were kicked out of their homes or worse simply for not conforming to their parents expectations for them! Family is the people you CHOOSE to be in your life and this movie’s ultimate message about taking the good with the bad feels really tone deaf and to a certain extent coming from a place of privilege. I don’t doubt the real Jeannette Walls sincerity in the lessons she took from the life she had, nor do I judge her for how she processed the relationship she had with her father, but her results are not typical. Not everyone from a crappy home is gonna grow up to be a journalist AND a best-selling author. More often than not, the abusive just keeps perpetuating for generation after generation which this movie touches upon but only in so much as it can be used to further forgive Wood Harrelson’s own abusive tendencies. This is also why a show like Moral Orel is so important. It knows how to give depth and layers to a horribly abusive character (Clay Puppington) and even extend them the slightest bit of sympathy, but never tries to excuse the abuse or frame it as an aberration to a good man’s normal behavior and to do otherwise feels really out of place and backwards thinking.
So there you go! That’s my screed about how much bullshit the story in this movie is; not because Jeannette’s story is not one worth telling but because of how they told it in such a deceptive manner with really outdated life lessons! What about the rest of the movie? It’s actually pretty decent! I wasn’t too impressed with the cinematography considering how overtly its used in the aforementioned manipulation, but the actors on screen are actually really great in this; giving complex and nuanced performances in the middle of a blunt production. Woody Harrelson is as good as you’d expect him to be in a role like this (he’s basically if Mickey Knox settled down to start a family instead of… well what he ends up doing in that movie) but there are some great actors like Brie Larson and Naomi Watts to bounce off of and to react to his increasingly erratic behavior. The movie also gets rather good in the second half of the movie when it starts to focus much more on his abusive behaviors and really can’t continue to be as manipulative as it was before (there’s no way of spinning these actions as anything but pure selfishness and evil) so it plays out like a TRUE family drama instead of a facsimile of one. Sadly they go back to lionizing Woody Harrelson towards the end, but for a good chunk there I saw what this movie SHOULD have been and enjoyed it quite a bit. Other than that, there’s really not much to talk about as this is a film that lives and dies on its performances which is one of the things it gets right. It’s just too bad that pretty much everything else around it for the majority of the film is working against it and dragging down the overall sense of enjoyment that I got from them.
Look, maybe I’m coming about this all wrong and am putting too much of MY expectations into the story instead of letting it play out in its own way and judging it by those merits. Hell, I’m VERY far from an authority on the subject, and me ranting for this long about how someone ELSE interpreted their own abuse is more than likely an extremely backwards thing to do in its own right! All I can say is that I was really frustrated while watching this movie and had a really hard time investing in its characters despite how good a job the actors were doing in portraying the characters. I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in theaters and I honestly wouldn’t really recommend seeing it when it gets a home release, but maybe I’m completely ass backwards on this movie and you’ll find something uplifting and emotionally fulling in this story. I certainly didn’t, but I’ve also been dead inside since I saw God’s Not Dead 2, so maybe I’m just incapable of feeling things other than annoyance…