“Things usually work out in the end.”
“What if they don’t?”
“That just means you haven’t come to the end yet.”
-Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle: A Memoir
How can the man who taught you to be fearless be the man you fear most? How can the man who gave you nothing be the man who gave you everything? How can you want your children to spread their wings yet resent them for leaving? The Glass Castle, a coming of age story based on writer Jeannette Walls’ childhood, is a powerful tale about a family who put the fun in dysfunctional. I never read Walls’ 2006 book entitled The Glass Castle: A Memoir, but I heard from friends that it was a poignant yet provocative tale about finding one’s identity and reconciling the past.
Growing up in abject poverty, young Jeannette and her three siblings move from place to place as their parents, played by Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts, flee bill collectors and the authorities. Harrelson’s character Rex, based on Jeannette’s real father, is a dreamer, who talks about settling down someday and building his children “a glass castle” to call home. Unable to hold down a job and convinced that he knows more than educated bureaucrats, Rex tries to teach his children about the real world, believing that “learning comes from living” and forcing them to “sink or swim” is the best way of ensuring their success.
Cynical of wealthy people, Rex believes that the unorthodox way he and his wife Rose Mary are raising their kids is better than any school. While he’s eager to show them things that could never be learned from books, his children unfortunately learn about the real world from his numerous flaws. Jeannette and her siblings, often going without food for days at a time, realize from an early age that their parents can’t necessarily be relied on, and together decide that if they’re going to survive childhood, they need to stick together.
Jeannette’s character is played by three actresses of different ages as she transitions from childhood through adulthood. Chandler Head plays Jeannette as a young girl, and her performance was especially impressive as her character goes through some serious emotional turmoil. Ella Anderson, who plays Jeannette in her early teens, was equally impressive as her character learns to stand up for herself, and, more importantly, refuses to back down when dealing with her alcoholic father and enabling mother.
Teen and adult Jeannette are played by Academy Award winner Brie Larson, who gives a stunning performance as a young woman intent to make it on her own without the heavy weight of her childhood heartaches squashing her dreams of becoming a writer. As Jeannette explores who she wants to be, flashbacks of her childhood haunt her yet remind her of her inner strength. Is it possible to ever truly escape the family who made her who she is?
Woody Harrelson, once known for being the dimwitted yet affable bartender on Cheers, gives his best performance yet. As I watched his destructive behavior unravel his family’s core, I never doubted his love for them. Even though his parenting is at times downright negligent and dangerous, I fully believed the sincerity of his regret and self-loathing that went hand in hand with each situation. Naomi Watts’ performance as an artist and mother who seems borderline ambivalent to her children’s suffering is exceptional as well, and I found myself feeling sorry for her even though I was incredulous how as a mother she could repeatedly ignore her children’s most basic of needs.
Since this based-on-a-true-story is about childhood recollections that shape one’s adulthood, it was interesting seeing it with my two sisters, Jodi and Jamie. Jodi shared, “I really enjoyed this story about the power of the human spirit. It’s amazing to me how resilient some children can be no matter how the odds are stacked against them. All three characters who played Jeannette were amazing, and so was Woody Harrelson.”
Jamie reflected, “To me, the idea of the glass castle was that it represented an unattainable dream. The movie exemplified how you can’t choose your family, and how those same people you are ‘stuck with’ are the very same people who help you develop into the person you are meant to be. They help you survive, help you grow, and teach you as best as they can. Money can’t buy happiness, and accepting your past is necessary to move forward with your future. Don’t try to be someone or something you’re not.”
Jamie continued, “I felt like this movie has a lot for viewers to identify with; everyone thinks their own family drama is ‘the worst’, but maybe, just maybe, the situations and quirks that make us cringe the most, may very well make for some of the sweetest of memories.”
Be sure to watch the credits! (No spoilers.)
Movie times: click here
Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Actors: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts
Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking