Adapted from the best-selling memoir of the same name, The Glass Castle depicts the unorthodox childhood of writer Jeannette Walls (portrayed by Ella Anderson in flashback) as she moves from town to town with her parents and three siblings. Her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) seems to be full of inspiration and wisdom when speaking with his children but we soon learn of personal demons that manifest themselves through alcoholism and fits of anger that contribute to his inability to maintain a steady job. Her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), an aspiring painter, doesn’t fare much better in attempting to support her kids but still remains hopeful even as their financial situation gets increasingly dire.
This backstory is intercut with scenes of Walls as an adult (Brie Larson) in late 1980s New York, now a writer for a gossip column who is happily engaged to a promising financial analyst (Max Greenfield). Her attempts to expunge the memories of her painful past fail when her parents turn up, desperate as ever, in Manhattan and they seek to reconnect Jeannette with the rest of her family in a series of doomed meet-ups. Her parents don’t give up, however, and through continued exposure with them, Walls rediscovers the fleeting moments of bliss that occurred during her rocky upbringing and aims to find resolution with her struggling parents before it’s too late.
The film and its director Destin Daniel Cretton seem to contend that Rex and Rose Mary are worthy of such absolution but based on the two hours that I spent with them, I can’t say that I agree with that stance. These are more than flawed characters trying to make their best out of a bad situation; these are narcissistic, negligent, selfish parents who demonstrate time after time that they’re ill-equipped to handle raising one child much less four. Not only does Cretton often seem to give them a pass on their reprehensible behavior but he tends to double down on his efforts by attributing bits of noxious pseudo-philosophy to their actions, as when Rex repeatedly throws Jeannette into the deep end (literally) of a public pool and then has the gall to follow up with “I can’t let you cling to the side your whole life.”
Rose Mary gets in on the action too and early on as well, as we’re only a few minutes in when she tells her hungry child (probably 3 or 4 years old at the time) to make her own lunch since she can’t be bothered to take a break from her painting and Jeannette’s attempt to boil hot dogs results in horrifying burns. What, exactly, is the point of opening the story this way if I’m to have anything but utter contempt for a woman who would allow something so despicable to happen to her young daughter? In case this wasn’t enough, the plucky strings from Joel West’s cloying musical score are a distressing reminder that this movie thinks it’s a quirky dysfunctional family tale à la Little Miss Sunshine when it’s closer to something out of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre spin-off.
If there’s a saving grace, it’s in the high-quality cast that’s been assembled and the generally excellent work (inconsistent accents aside) that they showcase even with such problematic material at the forefront. Harrelson and Watts do a reliably solid job but it’s Larson that again proves she’s the real deal following her Oscar win for Room, as she navigates through complex emotional territory without losing the audience in the process. Even the caliber and conviction of the performances doesn’t change the fact that I spent so much time rolling my eyes during the events of The Glass Castle that it’s possible I saw more of the ceiling in my theater than what was taking place on the giant screen in front of me.