Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton has built a body of work that takes a magnifying glass to the individual surviving within a group, weaving portraits of stealth emotional impact. In his breakout film “Short Term 12,” which launched Brie Larson and Lakeith Stanfield into their respective stardoms, Cretton examined the ecosystem of humans living and working in a long-term foster care facility. His third feature, an adaptation of Jeanette Walls’ blockbuster memoir, “The Glass Castle,” examines the tale of a similarly disadvantaged group.
“The Glass Castle,” published in 2005, written by former New York magazine columnist Walls, chronicles her unconventional and destitute childhood. She and her siblings were shepherded around the country by her parents, a pair of dysfunctional dreamers, before the family landed for a longer spell in her father Rex’s hometown of Welch, West Virginia. Cretton, who adapted the book for the screen with Andrew Lanham, shakes up the structure, interspersing childhood flashbacks with Jeanette (Brie Larson) in 1989, struggling to balance her life as a big city writer and accept her family.
Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts take on the roles of Rex and mom Rose Mary. Harrelson pours himself fully into the role of the charismatic and manipulative trickster Rex; he’s a man who dreamed bigger than anything, but never escaped his personal demons. Watts is a manic, passionate artist who perhaps shouldn’t have been a mother, her dedication to her work resulting in negligence toward her children.
Walls’ memoir is powerful in its overwhelming, unrelenting repetition of the highs and lows of her childhood — a roller coaster she can’t get off. An adaptation would always have had to cherry pick the most illustrative parts, but her story here feels compressed or picked over. Its vastness is almost too much for Cretton to dig in on the kind of specific individual moments where he excels at wringing out poignancy. There are a few scenes that he hits out of the park, which are given time to breathe, especially one in which a drunken Rex, having disappeared for a whole day after promising to bring food home to his hungry children, coaches a weeping, quivering young Jeannette (Ella Anderson) into sewing up a wound in his arm. Similarly stark is a scene of a harrowing swimming lesson.
Due to the Herculean task of adaptation, “The Glass Castle” lacks the emotional potency of Cretton’s earlier work, and the unflinching detail of Wall’s memoir. It almost feels as though his delicate subtlety doesn’t quite fit this material. Larson, who singularly expresses a kind of repressed ferocity, is only let off the leash sparingly, reined in by her character’s tightly pulled hair and fancy airs. Her younger counterpart, Anderson, proves to be the most compelling iteration of Jeanette, at her most raw and trusting of her father’s wiles, before she learns to close off and protect herself from his manipulations.
Eventually, “The Glass Castle” comes into focus. Its message is universal. Our families may be horribly flawed. Our parents might be toxic and make horrible, dangerous mistakes. But there is no greater self-acceptance than fully accepting who you are, where you come from, and what made you.
‘The Glass Castle’
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Max Greenfield, Chandler Head
Running time: 127 minutes