“The Glass Castle,” the film biography based on one-time gossip columnist Jeannette Walls’ memoir, is just dissonant enough to feel as if it’s from another era — an era when we knew “shame.”
You know, back before we invited TV crews in to see our relatives as “Hoarders,” before we turned a family of shameless sexual opportunists into TV stars and multi-millionaires, back before we put an unstable pathological liar, crook and sexual predator in the White House.
Walls — a gorgeous, glamorous TV presence in the late ’90s, spilling the dirt on the rich and the infamous in print and in other media — was good at keeping one big secret: her secret shame, her upbringing.
“Castle” reveals that secret right out of the gate. It’s 1989, Jeannette (Oscar winner Brie Larson) is racing up the Manhattan media pecking order, engaged to an investments manager (Max Greenfield). But ask her about her parents, and her mom’s “an artist” and Dad “an engineer.” In Virginia.
And much of that smokescreen comes from the fiance, covering for her at a fancy dinner where she’s just broken the mood by asking for leftover take-home bags.
“When it comes to my family, let ME do the lying.”
Her childhood, flashbacks tell us, was worth a book. And that’s what she made of it when the gossip thing faded away.
She and her three siblings spent the late 1960s hurtling hither and yon in assorted worn-out station wagons — squatting here, camping there.
Dad (Woody Harrelson) was a regular “Captain Fantastic,” full of sound and fury about the evils of “the system” and wage slavery and debt and the state’s child endangerment laws. Mom (Naomi Watts) was no “Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio” herself. She paints, seems to recognize the shared anti-convention/anti-establishment delusion that her husband has imposed on them all, and…just paints.
She’s too self-absorbed to protect the litter these two louts have brought into the world to raise themselves, “free range” children, before that was a thing.
They’re wonderful spinners, these parents. Where do they live? “Dad says home is wherever we go.”
Every move is always “the last time.” Every hardship — they don’t eat, often have no electricity or running water — is “an adventure.”
Every trauma — taking little Jeannette (Chandler Head) to a segregated pool, where the black families are shocked at Dad hurling her into deep water with a hectoring “Sink or SWIM!” — is a life lesson.
We’re all heroes of our own story, and Walls tells hers — they wind up trapped in the poorest corner of West Virginia — with understanding, tolerance, attempts at humor and a barely-tamped-down fury.
The adult kids joke and wince and laugh about the time their father drank up what money they had at Christmas, and then took them into the yard and “gave” them stars as presents. The children get burned, cut, bruised and starved — kept out of school but not out of harm’s way by self-absorbed “free-spirit” parents.
Textbooks and movies tell us that such kids grow up fast. They have to be the adults. And that’s what happens here, a pact to “get out of here” — one at a time.
Harrelson, who was in “Prize Winner” and probably should have steered clear of this, can put a charming mask on a self-righteous monster who takes too much pride in not fitting in. Watts lets us see what might keep Rosemary with this man, but the writing doesn’t explain away her gross dereliction of her duties.
“The Glass Castle” — the title is just one of the pipe-dreams Rex sells his little girl — lurches between the comic and the appalling. West Virginia small-town poverty never looked so real, or so grinding. The effort to explain their father’s mania (Robin Bartlett is the mother who made him, the monstrous grandma to this brood) falls short.
And much of the “present day” material — with Brie stumbling into those parents as they dumpster-dive in Manhattan, and yet still trying to maintain ties and see to it that her siblings do, too — rings hollow.
If you were looking for someone to deftly juggle this sentimental-to-shocking story into shape, the director of the harsh and hilariously over-rated “Short Term 12” would not be first on the list. But here is director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton manhandling this — a little “Captain Fantastic” here, a lump of “Grapes of Wrath” there, none of it graceful or for that matter logical — into a lumbering ordeal of a picture.
It’s impossible for a movie using child actors to get across malnutrition, injuries, ruined teeth, broken spirits barely propped up with love, to any convincing degree. Then again, looking at the perfectly put-together/perfect teeth Walls on TV back in the day or even today, and you’re hard-pressed to believe this fable. But the burn scars are hidden.
And maybe it’s just the times, but remembering “shame” when it really does seem to have been kicked to the curb by our race to a social lowest common denominator, may be the toughest concept to take a swing at, something “The Glass Castle” manages with a swing and a miss.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content involving family dysfunction, and for some language and smoking
Cast: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Chandler Head, Max Greenfield
Credits: Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, script by Andrew Landham and Destin Daniel Cretton, based on the Jeannette Walls memoir. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 2:07