By Jim Mackney
Poverty, whiskey, home truths and a little bit of laughter. These fragments make up the adaptation of Jeanette Walls’ memoir, “The Glass Castle”. The film barrels along, and at a crisp 2hrs 7mins in length it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It reaches for the stars and goes for emotion in capital letters.
“The Glass Castle” is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and stars, Brie Larson as Jeanette Walls and Woody Harrleson as her father, Rex Walls. The film follows Jeanette and her sibling’s upbringing where the family squatted in abandon homes and grew up in poverty – occasionally presented idealistically through the eyes of young Jeanette. This is Larson’s second time working with Cretton with whom she previously worked on her breakout film, Short Term 12. The pair clearly understands each other and Cretton is able to draw out a measured performance from Larson who is a little too good for the film.
Rolling American vista’s and ramshackle forgotten about towns, fill the screen as the family dash from home to home, on the run from debt collectors and in the beginning there is a sense of fun to proceedings that has not yet been irreparably tainted.
Themes of abuse and neglect run through the film with a regularity that saps life from the film a touch, it is in these moments that the film feels most run of the mill. A scene involving Jeanette as a child, boiling hot dogs, made certain audience members wince during the screening I was in but this is, as are most of the horrible situations in the film, used as a way to give Woody Harrleson the space to fill the screen and chew the scenery. His performance overall is not nuanced enough and appears to be dealing in emotions 101. Naomi Watt’s plays the wife, Rose Mary, and is much more understated conveying the characters sense of helplessness and devotion to her husband well.
The film bristles with tension under the surface and in the middle of the film, when Rex and Rose Mary engage in an argument it is no surprise that it flares up into domestic abuse. The camera stays resolutely in a tight medium close up all the way through, designed to keep the moment engaging, I felt myself wanting to turn away but could not. This scene is easily Cretton’s best work in the film.
Place and identity run to the core of the film and offer some of the film’s deepest questions. The film unfurls its narrative via flashbacks with Jeanette being shown through the juxtaposition of her modern day, yuppy Manhattan lifestyle and her unconventional upbringing. Although Jeanette has detached herself as much as she can from her past, there is an inkling inside of her that her new life and lifestyle is ultimately a vacuous shill compared to the down at heel life she was brought up with, however much she craved leaving.
Although the film does contain elements of ‘Hallmark’ twee-ness, once scene where Rex tells Jeanette to pick out a star for her Christmas present because he can’t afford to buy her a real one and has drunk the last few dollars he has rather than it being a romantic gesture, the sadness the audiences feel is genuine. The battle the children face is constant. When offering Jeanette her star, Rex utters the following in reference to ‘city folk’, which could mean anyone who isn’t a Walls: “The air is so polluted they can’t see the stars.”
Rex is portrayed as man always reaching for the stars, always trying to better himself but ultimately falling foul of his addictions. The film aims for such heights too and although it comes a long way short it is impressive to see it try.
In cinemas Friday 6th October.