The Glass Castle Review

There are quite a few terrific moments in this true story, based on the memoir by journalist Jeannette Walls. It’s an account of a seriously mind-boggling childhood that sees years of mayhem through a remarkably clear perspective, only occasionally dipping into sentimentality. But the actors are terrific, bringing an earthy realism to their roles, including a stand-out turn from Woody Harrelson.

It opens in 1989 New York, as Jeannette (Brie Larson) lies to her prospective in-laws about her parents, with her nice-guy fiance (Max Greenfield) helping her create a story that obscures the truth: Rex and Rose Mary Walls (Harrelson and Naomi Watts) are essentially homeless, living a life deliberately off the grid in defiance of meddling governments and too-powerful businesses. Indeed, Jeannette was raised in a free-form way, and her siblings (Sarah Snook, Josh Caras and Brigette Lundy-Paine) understand why she tries to hide them from her high-flying Manhattan life. But they are determined to be involved with her, and after another of Rex’s impulsively violent outbursts, Jeannette thinks it might be time to get away from them for good.

This story is interspersed with extensive flashbacks of Jeannette’s childhood (in which she’s played by Chandler Head and the excellent Ella Anderson), exploring Rex’s lifelong desire to build his dream “glass castle” for the family to live in. But this strikingly intelligent man is undone by his hot temper and antagonistic approach to society, creating problems with his wife and children. Harrelson and Watts are terrific in their colourful roles as these brightly artistic people trying to make sure their kids are smart and free. By comparison, Larson can’t help but seem a bit bland, especially in her puffy 80s suits and hairdos. So some of her emotional reactions to the people around her feel strangely abrupt.

Director-cowriter Destin Daniel Cretton (who also worked with Larson on Short Term 12) tells the story with plenty of energy, coaxing bold performances from the cast and finding constant moments of both giddy happiness and dark pain. Sometimes all of these big emotions become rather too obvious; the strongest scenes are the more delicate, relaxed ones that explore the fragile bonds between these damaged people. These moments also say a lot more about the themes than the louder, preachier ones. Because this is a meaningful exploration of the push and pull that exists in any family, and how every decision we make has an impact on the people we love.